Trailer Park Confidential

My Short Life as a California Dreamer

It was 90 degrees today in Toledo, Ohio, with 98 percent humidity, but at least it was overcast. I probably lost a layer of skin from my thighs sticking to mom's plastic-covered furniture. Air conditioner? Yeah, she has one, but there were so many June bugs on the power lines that the electricity went out twice.

I would have gone outside, but that was like getting hit in the face with a flaming shovel. So I spent the day sitting at the picnic table in the garage, drinking Bud from a can and watching the neighbor mow his lawn while my dog chased rabbits. Careful to breathe through my teeth so as not to involuntarily ingest winged protein, I thought about how miserable all of this was, yet how much better it was than living in a trailer park on the Balboa Peninsula.

Better than the pricks who treated me like a slave. Better than the tough guys who tried to bust open my face. Better than the girls who paid me no mind because who pays attention to the help? Then there were the old dudes who wanted to tell me not only how to do my job but also what my job was; the drunks with a death wish; the moans coming from G-3; the ladies knocking on my door at midnight —with me in my underwear—demanding mail delivery; the deadbeats list; the barbed wire; and the 43 dead rats beneath H-19.

I was an assistant manager at a trailer park on the Balboa Peninsula. Yeah, there are trailer parks in Newport. The residents there don't want you to know that. If you work there, they won't let you call them "trailer parks." Sounds too plebeian, too working-class, too, well, Toledo, Ohio. You're required to call them "mobile homes" or "cabanas" or "coaches"—anything but what they are.

There was a lot of stuff you were required to do because most of the people who lived in the trailers had lots of money, and people with lots of money make lots of rules for people who don't. Rule No. 1 is you don't talk about the people with lots of money.

That's how I ended up in Toledo, after the petition and the police pursuit. I'm happy to be here. I know that sounds crazy, especially since I spent last evening in my aunt's basement waiting out a tornado warning, but you never worked in a Balboa Peninsula trailer park. I did.

If you're wondering how I ended up in a trailer park, let's go back to 1995. Back to toledo.

For nearly 30 years, I had dreamed of seeing the West Coast, but I never had the balls to go. That changed when I met Jill. She worked as a waitress at Rusty's, the jazz club where I gigged (I play guitar). The other guys in my quartet called her "Top 3" because she was one of the three hottest women they had ever seen anywhere.

One day, after Jill and I had been dating a week, I said I'd like to get out of my little city and go west.

"I'd go with you," she said. That was all it took.

Three months later, I bought a used 21-foot Sportsman RV and packed it tight. I had $2,000; Jill had $800. We planned on going to Portland, Oregon, where I would join another band—I'd heard there was a great jazz scene up there—and Jill would find work in an upscale restaurant.

I thought we had better stop in California to replenish our funds for a while. We dropped anchor at Huntington by the Sea, an RV/trailer park in Huntington Beach, along Pacific Coast Highway. I thought we'd be there for a week, but we stayed for three months, paying $600 per month. Jill's money ran out shortly after we arrived, so we were floating on mine.

Jill was already homesick, though she tried to hide it from me. A few weeks before this, she couldn't get away from her dysfunctional family and whacked-out friends fast enough; now she was calling them every day from pay phones. I missed home, but I'd be damned if I'd turn around and head back after a little adversity. Still, knowing she was unhappy made me miserable, too.

There's nothing quaint or romantic about two people living in a 21-foot RV. Camping is one thing, but using an RV as your home is when you realize that Sartre was right: hell is other people. We had no car, which short-circuited most job possibilities. The money was dwindling much quicker than we were prepared for, and soon we were eating ramen more and making love less.

We began living off my Discover card, racking up thousands of dollars in debt. Jill couldn't get a waitressing job anywhere because summer had just ended. I wasn't doing any better. Things began to get desperate. Seeing a "Help Wanted" sign, I actually applied at the Häagen Dazs on Main Street while Jill put in an application at the Dairy Queen on Coast Highway. Neither of us got responses and we rationalized that we were overqualified.

Then I answered a want ad for an administrative assistant at a place called Bayside Village in Newport Beach. I didn't know the place was a senior trailer park until I got off the bus. It was like no trailer park I'd ever seen: refurbished double-wides sitting pretty along the Back Bay, with snow-capped ladies playing bridge in the clubhouse and salt-and-peppering the poolside. The office manager, Tammy, hired me almost on the spot because I fixed her printer.

My duties were cake: a little basic accounting and answering the phone. The rest of the time, I'd chauffeur the park manager, Larry, around in a pristine golf cart. Larry was a prolific smoker, augmenting cigarettes with a little cannabis in the evening. He liked to go to the Yankee Tavern frequently for happy hour and liquid lunches. We referred to the Tavern as "the annex" so the park residents milling around in the office would think we were going offsite to conduct important business. Sometimes, we'd take the cart to the annex and have it valet parked.

Meanwhile, Jill was offered a job as a waitress at the Rock-N-Java on Main Street.

Things were looking up.

A few weeks later, Jill confessed she wanted to go home. She'd try and hang on for my sake, she said. I thought if we got out of the RV, we'd have a chance. But one day after I signed a lease and put down a $400 deposit on an apartment in Huntington Beach, Jill decided to go home.

All I could afford was a bus ticket. I wasn't bitter that I had to eat the $400 deposit. I just wanted her to be happy. I guess. I took her to the station in Santa Ana and watched her bus pull away. She was crying, but she was leaving me all the same.

I never returned to RV by the Sea. At my new job, I had become the caretaker of a storage yard, a graveyard for RVs, trailers and boats, surrounded by a high fence with razor-sharp barbed wire trimming the top. After nightfall, I pulled my RV into the yard and parked it discreetly in a space between two large motor homes. I spent the night there, then another, then a year and a half.

"I don't see a problem with it. Do you?" Larry asked me one day. He had received word from one of the busybody residents that I was living in the yard. That's how I learned trailer park rule No. 2: you check your privacy at the property line.

Larry and I had a fantastic friendship and working groove. He was a retired show-biz heavyweight, having produced the original Dating Game, Newlywed Game and Divorce Court. We loved jamming to reggae when we were in the office. I was often late in the morning. "Overslept," I'd say. "Hey, it's not a murder," he'd say. We'd ride around in the golf cart, pretending to inspect the park while actually joy-riding, Larry chanting, "Isn't this beautiful?" the whole way. We were careful to avoid residents who tried to wave us down to tell us that the Jacuzzi temperature was "scalding," or "too cold," or "bad for my heart."

I began dating again. Ashley, the first girl I brought back to the RV, thought it was charming, "like being on a camping trip." But I began to notice that every time we went out for a drink, Ashley ended up blowing chunks. It had become a habit of mine to take dates for a night ride in the golf cart and then to the clubhouse to sit by the pool. The first night I did this with Ashley, she threw up in the pool—in front of residents who stood silently in the Jacuzzi. The second time, she did it in Larry's bushes while I was house-sitting his trailer. The third and last time it happened, she woke me by throwing rocks at my RV. Before I could open the gate, she climbed over the barbed-wire fence, yelling, "I love you, CJ!" She vomited by the dry-storage gate that night, laughing between hurls. I was careful about who I brought back to the RV after that.

Still, for one year, Larry and I had a time. Until the morning he didn't show up for work.

"Let him be," I said to Becky, our latest office manager. "He's probably sleeping in today."

"But he always comes in before I get here and reads the paper," Becky said with real concern. "And he's not answering his phone."

So the maintenance man, Ezee, and I took the cart down to Larry's trailer and knocked on the door. No answer. Since Larry never locked his door, Ezee opened it halfway.

"Larry!?"

Then he went inside. I knew Larry was sleeping off a hangover and told Ezee not to disturb him, but he caught a glimpse of Larry in the bedroom.

"He's on the floor!"

Larry's heart had exploded while he was on the way to the shower. He had fallen face-down and died so quickly that a towel was still slung over his shoulder and a cigarette was still in his mouth; it had kept burning a while after he stopped breathing, leaving a scorched circle in the carpet. He'd been dead since 11 p.m. the night before. He was 64.

I lived in dry storage for another six months, taking showers in the clubhouse and keeping all the shades drawn so that no one knew I was there. I was still eating a lot of ramen noodles and riding in the golf cart, though I just couldn't seem to get myself to empty out the ashtray that held Larry's old cigarette butts.

My new boss, Stella, didn't really have a problem with me living in the yard, but she wanted me to start thinking about living elsewhere because of "liability concerns." Things weren't the same without Larry. So I moved into a three-bedroom house with Ezee and three other guys. That lasted about four months. After being awakened at 7 a.m. by salsa music every weekend, sharing one bathroom among four guys—one of whom lived in our garage—who love Mexican food, watching roaches scurrying over the dirty dishes when I turned on the kitchen light, finding food-caked silverware under the couch pillows and coming home to find all the furniture on the porch and 50 guys crammed into the living room and watching a live strip show, I moved out. I rented a room from my friend Freddy in his new condo in Aliso Viejo.

I began writing—music and sports, mostly—for OC Weekly. I found another accounting job in a little office in Irvine, and I gave notice at Bayside Village. I thought trailer parks were behind me. I had been living with Freddy for about a year when Patti, my ex-boss, told me about a possible opening at a trailer park on Balboa Peninsula.

"It's right on the beach," she said. "The residents are mostly part-time, and the park is much smaller than Bayside Village—and you get your own coach to live in."

I jumped at the chance to live alone and rent-free. The park manager, Vinnie, was a friend of Stella's so I was hired almost straight away.

I didn't know there was a trailer park on the Peninsula, since Marinapark is tucked behind a city parking lot along the bay and mostly hidden by a fence. I got my own pad—a 30-year-old double-wide trailer—and my own driveway, a luxury on the Peninsula. Though the city owns the land, leasing it to trailer owners for between $800 and $1,200 per month, it hired a management company to run its property. That's who I worked for.

Actually, I worked for Vinnie, an old-school, 62-year-old Italian from Queens. Vinnie once worked as a longshoreman and used to tell me how the mob forced him to hand over a percentage of his pay every week; his intermediary, he said, was a Catholic nun. Why would he pay? I asked. Because of Lonny, he said—who refused to pay and was fished out of the East River, his body laid on the docks so that everybody could get a look before he was taken away on a board with a sheet over him. He claimed the story was true, and I wondered if he was telling me this to impress me or to give me his views on labor relations.

Vinnie was happy to have someone around who could do a little maintenance and landscaping and wasn't afraid of dirty work, like cleaning the public restrooms and showers. He'd just been through two assistants; the last, whom Vinnie referred to as the Rag, had made the mistake of considering herself a resident rather than an employee. When it looked as though the city might not extend the land lease, forcing all residents to remove their trailers within 60 days, the Rag took it upon herself to attend a City Council meeting to protest at the podium that the city had no right to evict her and that she, as a resident, had every right to be there. That was her last mistake.

The manager's watch is Monday through Friday, while the assistant covers weekends. My Saturday mornings would start with a scenic bayfront walk along the Marinapark boardwalk, where I'd turn on all the sprinkler valves with a long rod so that I wouldn't have to bend down and thus could sip my coffee as I went.

The part-time residents—made up mostly of affluent retirees who came in on weekends from Beverly Hills, Palm Desert and San Marino—were usually not up yet, so I had the place to myself. After my morning patrol, I'd sometimes stop back at my trailer to shave, grab a bagel or check for e-mails. Then I'd go back to the office, turn on the TV, put my feet up on my desk and prop my head against the wall—sunglasses still on so that if I dozed, no one would be the wiser. I "watched" the park entrance for nonresident invaders.

At lunch time, I'd walk across the street to the beach, usually eating at the Blue Beet Café, which had become a surrogate home.

Sometimes Vinnie would go to lunch with me, or we'd go for a coffee break in the morning, leaving a sign on the office door that said, "Out of the Park, Be Back Soon." Aside from cleaning the restrooms and watering a few plants, I watched TV or sat in front of the office catching rays and smoking cigars, waving to incoming and outgoing residents.

I could handle this.

I was careful to keep my indoor activities innocuous during weekday business hours; Vinnie joked (I think he was joking) that if I had a "broad" over, to be sure and call him so he could listen in. He was always up—hard up—for a younger woman, even though he had a girlfriend about 10 years his junior, whom he'd met in cyberspace via the online personals. She'd drive from Arizona to see him, usually (to his displeasure) bringing her daughter along. When I'd first seen her going to his house, I casually asked him who she was. "Why should I tell you?" he asked. "You never introduce me to any of your broads, you fuck."

I was getting to know some fine musicians around town, and I began playing in a band at the Blue Beet Café. I was writing for the Weekly and other publications. I had a new girlfriend, Cheryl, an actress just fresh off a divorce from some rich dude. She'd drive over in her black Mercedes, and we'd go out on the town. Cheryl paid for everything because her taste was extravagant and she knew my wallet wasn't. Once, she gave a doorman $40 so we could get right into a club past the long line. She always drove. For some reason, going anywhere in my peach-colored 1981 Chevy Caprice just didn't appeal to her.

She seemed to like my trailer, though—said it was "like being in a houseboat." I never let her stay overnight because I couldn't bear all the gossip that would ensue among the residents and I didn't want her to be ogled by seniors as she walked her amazing walk back to her car.

I should have let her stay. But I still missed Jill, and the women I dated were really just to keep her off my mind. It didn't work.

After six months, I had begun to figure out the residents. There were some real nice ones, especially among the full-timers. There was Nick, the park drunk, and his mother, Sally. There was Rita in G-9—97 years old going on 21. And Destiny, a sweet woman who went through the windshield of a car two years before and barely survived on disability checks but still bought me a floor lamp because I'd once mentioned I didn't own one. There were Dave and Frannie in G-3, quiet and polite; the only time I heard anything out of them was one day when I was painting an electrical box outside their trailer and heard what seemed like the unmistakable sounds of animal sex: "YES! YES! YES!" All right, Dave and Frannie, I thought, until I began to pick out phrases like "Praise him," "Glory be" and "Savior."

At 50, Dave and Frannie were among the park's youngest residents, 25 percent of whom were full-timers. Unlike the part-timers, the majority of the full-timers survived on fixed incomes and the park's low rents. In exchange, they lived in a 60-by-25-foot mobile home on a 100-by-60-foot plot of land.

The full-timers and I got along smashingly. I was right there with them in the trenches, scratching out a living. But after six months, I'd come to realize that the part-timers were not at all like the full-timers—not like Dave, who played Johnny Cash songs on his flat-top, and certainly not like Morgan, who'd slip me a $20 bill for helping him net his fig trees against the birds.

The mostly rich part-timers were used to having things done for them on demand. To wit:

[Ring, ring]

"Hello, Marinapark."

"Yes, CJ. This is Mr. Gotrocks from F-4. There's a man coming to repair my air conditioner today, and I'm still out on the boat. [Sound of ice clinking in glasses.] When he gets there, would you let him in and tell him I'm on my way?"

"Well, actually, I'm going to be in and out of the office all day so I don't. . . ."

"Good man."

[Click.]

The outgoing message on the office phone told people to press 5 to send an emergency page. Countless times I raced across the park or out of a restaurant to answer a page that invariably went like this:

"Hi, Chris, this is Mr. Goldinpockets. If you see the UPS man today, send him right down, would you, sport?"

Part-timers would knock on my door at 7 a.m. to ask what time the mailman came. They came in the middle of the night to ask if I had packages for them. Late one evening, a resident came to my door—when I only had one light burning in my trailer and all the blinds closed tight. I saw her through my peephole, tousled my hair, took off my shirt and pants, leaving on nothing but my boxers and house slippers, and then opened the door.

"Oh, hi, Chris," said Mrs. Bigbucks. "Could I get my package?"

That was it. Not, "Oh, I'll come back another time," or, "I'm sorry to disturb you"—just, "Do what I say, shit."

I grabbed the office keys as she waited on my doorstep, looked over my shoulder and said, "Keep your motor running, baby," then walked to the office in nothing but my boxers and slippers.

I started to do favors only for residents who appreciated rather than expected them. I started to loathe the weekends, with the part-timers pulling in and shouting orders. I'd look over at the beach just across the street, populated with people my age, and feel very far away.

Making things worse, Vinnie began breaking my balls over minutiae—the way I folded the flags, the way I rolled up the garden hose, the actual order in which I did things. It turned out that the heat was on: the city was still considering closing the park when the lease expired. So the management company wanted the park to look as good as it possibly could to help make a case for lease-extension.

Thus my job description expanded: pick up trash in the parking lot, shovel sand off the boardwalk, keep access to the beach clear, pull and clip weeds in all common areas, change burnt-out bulbs along all walkways, and paint—especially paint. Vinnie had me hand sand the 72 mailboxes outside the office and then paint them, one by one. It took me two months to finish that project. Then he had me paint the big wooden shed—which was also a garage for Vinnie's car. Then he had me paint the lattice fence at the park entrance. Then he had me paint my own trailer, which included the office. Finally, I had to paint all the old wooden boxes—15 in all—that housed the electricity meters for the trailers.

Vinnie began to sit in his trailer directly across from the office with the blinds cracked just enough to watch me. He showed me the exact level at which he wanted the office blinds raised—drawing a line with a magic marker so I'd keep them there. He created a list of all my new duties, with a time frame for each duty to be performed and a box for me to check once each duty was completed.

Amidst this, I flew back to Toledo for Christmas. I called Jill as soon as I got into town. We decided to celebrate New Year's together at our old haunt, Rusty's. We drank way too much that night, so we reserved a hotel room. We left the club in Jill's car, kissing and swerving. Then Jill was pulled over, given a sobriety test, and taken to jail, her car impounded. Happy frigging New Year.

Jill was eventually released on bail, and we took a taxi to the hotel. We were still wild, but something was different. I don't know. She was different—a felon. I was a wage slave to a bunch of rich old geezers, and I hated my life.

A freak hand injury forced me to retire my guitar to its case. I flew back to Marinapark not the least bit refreshed or recharged. I looked at the weekends the way prisoners must look upon community shower day. Almost every Saturday, a certain part-timer —let's call him Rich—would whistle for me the way you would a dog, and he'd wait while I obediently walked over.

"CJ, I won't be here next weekend, so water the plants on my porch, will you? The hose is on the deck."

"Sure, Rich, I'll water those for you."

(I wouldn't give his plants another thought for the next two weeks. Somehow, he never figured out that his plants always died under my care.)

"Good, because I wouldn't want those plants to die," says he. "And while I have you here, can you trim these vines back closer to the fence? [The question is rhetorical.] They're getting kind of thick, and I'm afraid it will attract rats."

I never told Rich that while his neighbor Nick was in detox, Nick's brother had sent for a pest-control man because he heard things moving under the floorboards and in the walls while he was trying to clean up Nick's place during his absence. Nick had no domestic skills—I've seen his place, with dirty dishes piled high in the sink and strewn throughout the living room, garbage never emptied, and no cleaning of any kind ever attempted. Nick just sleeps, drinks, smokes, and waits. In less than a week's time, the pest controller trapped 43 rats underneath H-19.

"Sure, Rich," I say. "I'll get right on that."

Nick was one of the nicest residents in the park. He'd come by just to talk, never asked for much of anything. He was also purposely drinking himself to death. He'd been through a knee-buckling divorce with a woman he said he still loved. He lost his job working on oil rigs, where, he told me, he used to climb down, drop a couple of hooked lines baited with hamburger, catch a shark or two, and cook them for dinner.

He became a trailer hermit, living day to day and bottle to bottle with his blinds drawn. In his late 40s, his pallor varied between ashen-gray and cadaver-green. In my brief time at Marinapark, he grew so sick and frail that his elderly mother—in poor health herself—came to stay to watch over him. I used to catch him sitting in his car, drinking from a paper-bagged bottle.

One holiday weekend, Nick was cleaning out the glove box in his car and getting lugged up when a park resident called the police on him. He was already pretty faded when Newport's finest arrived, so they hauled him away, even though he wasn't driving the car. I stayed with his hysterical mother for a little while. Her eyesight was failing, and she explained that she had seen someone suspicious inside her son's car so she'd called the police.

I called the Newport Beach Police Department to see if I could go spring him, but they were adamant on keeping him for an overnight stay, away from the wheel of a car. That's when he lost his driver's license, and he never did get it back. The next day, he took a taxi as far as his pocket money would carry him and then hoofed it the rest of the way home. My doorstep was his first stop.

"Do you know who called the cops on me?"

I never told him it was his mother.

Not long after, his mother died. His father and siblings decided to send him to a detox clinic. Nick tolerated the clinic and then jumped off the wagon. It didn't take long for the neighbors to come to me with "concerns" about Nick. A full-time resident, a sweet elderly woman, had found an unopened bottle of vodka hidden in the bushes behind a neighboring unit. Apparently, Nick was being monitored by his brother, who was taking it upon himself to drop by at unexpected times and shake down Nick's trailer for stashed hooch. He threatened to haul Nick back to his father's house if he found one drop of alcohol in the place. But Nick had hid this particular bottle too well, forgetting its whereabouts.

Soon, one of the park busybodies was on a paranoid mission to get a fire alarm installed in Nick's trailer, on the chance that he might pass out drunk while smoking.

When she told me of her idea, I told her she should talk to Nick. Talk to a full-timer? She walked away, saying, "Maybe some of us can get a petition going so that he has to get a smoke alarm."

The rich folks were heavily into petitions and lists. Ever since the word came down that the city might kick everyone off the land when the lease expired, they'd all hired attorneys to find a loophole in the lease. When the city began soliciting bids for projects on the property, the homeowners association, made up mostly of part-timers, encouraged park residents to make financial contributions. Many of the rich old birds volunteered to pay almost double their current rent if the city would let them stay put. They were impervious to the concerns of their full-time neighbors. The active members of the homeowners association—the rich ones, anyhow—responded to those residents who did not contribute to the legal-fees kitty by posting a deadbeats list on the park bulletin board just outside the office as a way, they told me, of shaming them in public.

Marinapark had become tense, and everyone felt it. Vinnie became obsessed with keeping undesirables out of our private lot. There is no gate at the park entrance, only a sign that reads NO PUBLIC PARKING that is often ignored by desperate inlanders crunched for parking during the summer. This was a royal pain in the ass, since there is no easy way to tell the difference between a freeloader and a guest of one of the residents without stopping them and actually asking, "Hi, who are you visiting, please?" Vinnie took a more direct tactic: "WHOA! What are you—braindead?! Can't you read the sign?!"

I got pretty good at spotting outsiders vs. extended family members. But being a watchdog is not my bag. I always despised this part of the job, especially after having people flip me off, threaten me, or try to run me down just because I wouldn't let them park. One day, a white El Camino pulled into the park with two guys looking like neo-Nazis. As I stood up to put the guest/trespasser question to them, the driver put the bird in my face and continued on into the park, yelling, "Fuck you!" out of his window as he headed toward the guest lot. He parked. I began to walk after him with nothing but a clipboard and a whistle for protection. The two slices of beef got out and began walking toward me.

"What is your business here, please?"

"Fuck you!" said the driver as he swung at me, grazing my jaw enough to knock me down. Then both of them sprinted between the trailers. By the time I got up, they were gone. So I had their car towed with a policeman standing by for backup. I never took a chance like that again; no flunky-ass trailer park job is worth disfigurement.

Summer faded. The Santa Ana winds came up, the deadbeats list blew off the bulletin board, and the rich residents went nuts.

"Did someone tear it down, do you think?" one asked me.

"Gee, I don't know. Why would they?" I asked. We stared at each other for a moment and then he walked off.

Two days later, a new list was up, this time laminated and posted with a thumbtack about every quarter inch all the way around it.

I don't know, maybe it wasn't the smartest thing to say yes to the interview. Maybe, given the stress level in the park, I should have known that talking to a reporter about the place and the people was just inviting trouble. Maybe I knew that all along.

Anyway, it wasn't long after the disappearing deadbeats list that I agreed to be interviewed by a colleague at the Weekly about my job. The job at Marinapark is a weird one in a surreal place, and I understood the attraction. While my name, as well as the names of the park and its residents would remain anonymous, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was what.

The chances of a Marinapark resident picking up and actually reading OC Weekly were slim. Vinnie told me that before my time, he had the OC Weekly delivered to Marinapark, keeping them in a rack at the office entrance. But it wasn't long before one of the rich birds complained, and that was all it took: the paper disappeared.

It ended up being a resident's daughters who spotted my interview in the Weekly online. Displeased with my candor, she promptly printed out a copy and sent it to her mother. Word spread through Marinapark like, well, like a tornado through a trailer park. While on duty, I was approached by my friend and neighbor Jack, who was carrying a copy of the story in his hand. "I just thought I'd let you know that people here aren't happy about this."

"Oh, really," Isaid.

I showed the interview to Vinnie, who seemed unaffected. But he foresaw repercussions from the rich clique as well as from our management-company supervisor. A few days later, Vinnie told me that some of the residents were demanding my head. The management company was not at all pleased with my comments in the interview and was ready to give me my pink slip; Vinnie talked them into keeping me, on the grounds that I was "well-trained, did my job efficiently, but had just used poor judgement" in this case.

"I practically begged to keep your job this morning, you fuck," Vinnie told me.

He negotiated a deal in which I would meet with company executives. They would reprimand me. I would write a letter of apology to the residents in addition to some other form of punishment the company would lay on me at the meeting, no doubt accompanied by a lecture. I told Vinnie I appreciated his efforts to save my job and left.

The choice was simple: swallow my pride and stay or stand up for myself and go . . . where?

I saw Nick that night, zigzagging toward me as I watered the plants.

"I need a restroom, like, real quick," he said, swaying.

"Umm, well, you can use mine. The door's open."

Not much time went by before Nick appeared again behind me. As I turned around, I noticed one pant leg was wet all the way down to his shoe.

"I didn't make it," he said, and began walking back to his trailer. I didn't give much attention to it—just took it in stride because that was Nick and that was Nick's life, and no one but Nick could save Nick.

Nick had made his decision, and I think I had made mine.

On the eve of the meeting, I went to the Blue Beet Café for a couple of brews and talked to my friend Stacy about maybe going back to Toledo for a while.

"But you'll never come back if you do that," she said.

I left the Blue Beet and walked back to the park, glancing over my shoulder at the ocean every now and then. I noticed a few people standing in front of the bulletin board and walked over to find the deadbeats list gone, ripped off the board, tacks and all. They looked at me; I stared back at them. Then I turned and walked away—smiling.

It was 3 a.m. when I pulled out of Marinapark, the Chevy Caprice crammed so full that the wheel wells nearly touched the rear tires. My guitar, though, sat beside me in the passenger seat with a seatbelt around it.

And then I was back in Toledo, after the car overheated and I gave it to some kid at a gas station; after I rented the truck; after the cop stopped me in Indiana, put me in back of his police car and had his dog sniff the truck for drugs.

Welcome home!

I've been here for a month now. I've been helping my uncle with his custom stump-cutting business. It's pretty challenging, artistically using a chain saw all day. I'm slowly readjusting to the Midwestern dialect; I heard my mom's neighbor say, "You ain't jumpin' in no pool" followed by, "Go inside and gitcha som' t' drink."

Our other neighbor, Doc, is a retired family practitioner whom I've known for more than 10 years. He's glad to have me back. Likewise. He and I have a running chess game going. We built a platform that sits atop the fence between his yard and my mom's yard and keep a chessboard on it. I check the board whenever I go outside, moving one of the pieces if it's my turn, then go on my way, waiting for Doc to respond at his leisure. A game can take two weeks.

All of my friends are married now. Their wives are into Bunco parties, whatever those are. I haven't looked up Jill since I've been back, and I don't think I will, but who knows? I do know that tonight I have to bowl. I'm in the Nail Biter's League at Imperial Lanes with my cousin. Did you know that Toledo has more bowling alleys per capita than any other city in the country?

The officer who patrols my street is starting to know my face; he waves now when I'm out jogging. My old pharmacist, Daryl, remembered me and actually stopped what he was doing to shake my hand and catch up with my life, even though he was busy and had customers waiting. That means something.

I found my old unicycle in the garage. I'm having a new pedal and tire put on so I can start riding it to the carryout and back, since I had to leave my beach cruiser in California. I take lots of naps on my mom's sun porch—ungodly humidity makes you drowsy–and I started playing guitar again.

I went to the driving range that sits right next to the last remaining drive-in movie screen in our town—the Sundance Kid Drive-In—with my dad yesterday. We shared a bucket of 100 balls, taking our time, watching each other swing.

"You got all o' that one."

"That one had a nice fade on it."

"Maybe you oughta try a crotch hook."

There was a soft Nor'easter in our faces and hardly any humidity, for once. Then we went back to his house, had a couple Busch beers in cans and sat in his living room talking. That was a perfect afternoon, worth more to me than the 1,816 days I spent in California.

Though sometimes I think of the ocean.

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