A Return After A 20 Year Absence From My Childhood Stomping Grounds
I grew up in a moss green house with a smooth concrete porch, my father’s handmade, oversized wooden mailbox affixed to the brick outside the matching clay orange front door.
My parents worked hard to make the lawn and backyard look well-cared for, as did all the neighbors up and down the street.
I walked to school, about 10 blocks away, to Ed White Elementary, named after the astronaut who had died when his mission exploded at take-off. Mr. White never got to see space, so he never got to see the school named for him. Each morning, a snapping American flag greeted me as I crossed through the tended entrance of rectangular bushes and laughing children.
There was a park with swings and monkey bars, where I once fell, cracking my head open.
Once a year we had carnival booths on the teacher’s parking lot…the “fishing booth”of live goldfish in clear, plastic bags we could win, bingo games and fresh slices of cake, or or homemade cookies… sweets to tempt any child to love a place of learning. It was a time when we felt safe, although we had no idea, back then, that there was anything else…
I ran free of parents, mingling with the other children, sharing secrets and giggles with the other girls over boys.
Back then, Houston seemed ok. It was the city we lived in, but we were in a two story house that felt like country, and there was still farmland right down the road, south down Bellaire.
The gas station at the corner of Gessner (and Bellaire) was owned and operated by a man who loved cars, who loved to come out and check your oil, chat with you about the times, happy to spend time pumping your car, cleaning your windshield. He took pride in his service, and I distinctly remember my mother saying how she really appreciated having such a nice man she could trust at the gas station. In my distant memories, I see a friendly, sun wrinkled face winking at me in a hot back seat as my mom pulled away, back towards home.
That gas station was the first place I used to get gas, too, when I started driving.
I sat in the long lines the summer President Jimmy Carter seemed to make a mistake trying to rescue hostages, and we were punished in return with high gas prices. Or maybe we were just starting to run out of oil. I can’t remember the reason, I just remember getting out of my cherry tomato colored Carmen Ghia (1963) and laying on the hood, gathering some rays, as I waited the hour and 27 minutes to fill up.
Our suburb was called Sharpstown. I had my first jobs at the Sharpstown Mall, I went to Sharpstown Junior High.
I sang “Walk this Way” with Charlotte and Pam on the way to school, crossing the ditch when we were in 7th grade….Kim Miller, Greg Warren, Mike Schulz, Scott Szabo and many others lived on the “other” side of Gessner, by the junior high. It seemed like another world entirely. Even the trees seemed different on the other side of those days.
Today, after I would guess 20 some odd years, I decided to take the time and drive out to my stomping grounds. I was driving back into Houston after the Galveston gig (see last entry), and I couldn’t believe, first of all, the intensely insane amount of traffic on 59 heading towards Victoria from downtown! (For God’s sake, it was Saturday! What are people doing sitting in traffic on the WEEKEND?)
I sat behind lines of cars, listening to one of the two stations in Houston worth listening to: KPFT. I called in to ask Susan and Larry if they wouldn’t mind plugging my house concert. Susan said, “Hey, great show at ACL Fest!” I was happy to know she’d caught it. I heard some Neil Young and the Hudsons as I found an exit and zipped up Bellaire, back towards my long ago home, back towards my memories.
Before I knew it, I was passing Gethsemene Methodist Church, where we went briefly when we first moved to Texas from Illinois. The church has weathered well, but seems much tinier than I remember. I came up to 59, passed under, struggling to “see” where my life had been…there was Sharpstown Mall, now called Sharpstown Center, with the original bank drive-thru on the right; many happy deposits were made in my early years going into that bank (Sharpstown Bank…?) I can feel the smile in my heart of walking in, holding my parents’ hands and opening a savings account at around age 6; the feel of the dark blue deposit book in my hand, the lady behind the counter counting my coins.
The bank seemed cold and enormous and serious. This is where money was saved for future plans. …
I drove past the mall, and noticed the missing Kettle where I worked in the summers while my friends were out swimming and on vacations. It’s gone, now. Just a used car lot. As I kept driving, I noticed where the Sharpstown Country Club used to be…a large mound of green grass, perhaps something behind it, but the only “natural” looking, block long greenery anywhere in that vicinity. I noticed a Malaysian restaurant on a lot and , next to it, someone had about 14 cars parked in the yard, shoe polish on all the windshields announcing, FOR SALE and a price for each. The intersection of Bellaire/Gessner, where the gas station used to be, now had a Blockbuster video, and I noticed the street signs were in Korean. I turned before I would have driven by Curtis Tanner’s house (I once made him a beautiful poster of colored pencil fish that took me hours and hours to draw—he did turn out to become a marine biologist…), and started feeling excited that I had made it this far. I was surprised at how many memories were starting to flood back…
Jill Ennis…what became of her? Laurie Overton? They lived on the street behind me, and as I turned, one block down from my home, I saw the house where the Damrels had lived. I had just passed Pam’s house, where someone (John) had put the severed deer head on Pam’s fence late one night and scared the bee-jesus out of her as she walked home from my house…there was the little white cottage where the older, widowed woman lived. She drove her lawn mower in a hat with netting, white gloves and chalky sunscreen slathered all over her ghostly face…not once did I ever talk to that elderly person, at least I don’t remember.
I never saw her drive a car or leave her house. Just ride the lawnmower every blue moon.
Now I was driving by Charlotte and Barb’s house. Right where it had been left…the trees grown to the sky, no longer the saplings of my youth. Right next to Charlotte’s, Cheryl
and Tim’s house (of the song “The Place Where the Garage Used to Stand”)…and bingo…I turned right, and here I was…on Rowan.
8814 Rowan, to my right..my home.
It happens to be for sale. It is still beautiful and well-kept. Now it is painted a creamy-white. Our front yard trees are kissing the sky, too.
I recited the names of all the old neighbors and my childhood friends as I drove down the street, slowly, absorbing it all in…I was also dialing the realtor to ask how much the house is for sale…$159, 172. Much less than what my mom sold it for ($185,000) but more than what my parents had originally paid for it in 1969—$27,000.
I passed the Wards, the Wommacks, the Sals, and the home where John the deer beheader had lived on the corner, and turned my van left, heading towards my elementary school. I felt like I’d turned onto a Parisian boulevard, the trees so strong and thick and hovering over the street, protective guardians of the present, unaware that I was a neighbor returning.
The school….my first thought was, “I’ll do a fundraiser to get the school repainted and the letters for Ed White replaced…!”
Then I drove around, the entire school encased in fence, some it with curled barb wire along the top. This felt weird. This felt sad to me.
The houses around the school seemed shabbier, trashier, and there were shutters and sheets in windows, broken and torn, taped in places, scrappy cars in driveways, trash sitting wet and forgotten, tucked up against curbs and floating aimlessly down the street. Kids were on the school playground, swinging, and I was reminded of the time I was disgusted with the school P.E. teacher for not letting the girls play ball. We had to play re-lay. He was a fair man, tall and lean and young, maybe early twenties, but serious, and he was the first black man at our school. I was mad at him when I insisted we get to play ball, too (I’d been on a team about two years by then…my mom was the coach of the White Tornadoes…sounds odd that we were called that and I was angry with a man who happened to be black), but it wasn’t anything to do with race: my anger was about GIRLS getting the shaft, that GIRLS should be treated the same as BOYS. (This would have been 1972 or so, mind you! Girls rights and all…) Anyhow, my memory is that I walked over to show my displeasure by kicking a hurdle, not realizing how it was made of a very light plastic, and the dang thing flew about twenty feet in the sky, and that was it! My teacher made me sit out for recess. I stewed, you can be sure. I think he thought I was gutsy, to some degree.
I drove past Jill Schoenbachler’s house, and Steve Klein’s house, and I think I saw the house of Mike Shannon, and his younger brother, Mark. (Mark is the one I wrote the song “Simply” for….) I drove down to Beechnut, where I used to take ballet with Ms. Zelda from Russia, a tall firey red head who I recall being 8000 years ago (ok, 35?) and she made us girls do headstands on the hard, wood floor. That dance studio is long gone….now it is a La Placita.
There was a house with three signs posted on wooden stakes: NO TRESPASS! hand lettered on each one. The place I used to take (and teach) guitar lessons—H & H Music—is now a Melrose Shoes. The coffee shop, Jim’s, is a Taqueria El Rincon de Mexico.
Gessner. Roos. Stroud. Sharpview. Fondren. All these street names came flooding in as I wandered towards the junior high, or “the prison”, as my dad mistook it for when we had first moved to town. Funny, the Junior High looked pretty much exactly the same, and I even saw that my mobile unit home room was in the same spot. The forest green doors of the front entrance still feel imposing (especially when locked shut)…
Two changes: the 7-11 is now (I’m not kidding) a STOP –N- GET (!!!!) and one block down, next to the scabby apartments that were always there, the retirement home has become a Buddhist Temple (for retired Buddhists, I guess.) There are two large, 10 foot tall carved stone dogs at the entrance of the golden gates and wooden archway, a fountain reminiscent of a Chinese water tower, and the retirement section, again, had sheets tucked into windows and one “Handicapped Parking” spot behind the fence.
There was Neff Elementary, also, now surrounded in electronic/wired fences, and St. Francis (where someone once stole Jesus’ hand from His statue), was still there.
A new park has been installed…well, new to me…it said it had been created in 1980.
I drove past Kim Miller’s house. Kim is nefarious for these incidents:
She ate all of my sister’s Halloween candy out of the hidden shoebox under my sister’s bed, and she also cut all my hair down to the scalp…I kept nervously asking, “Are you done?” and she kept saying, “Almost….” I had to wear a hankerchief over my head in 8th grade. You know that was bad. Very bad.
I drove by Greg Warren’s house, and I could see the two of us wrestling in the grass next to the driveway, the day his brother came out and captured us for all eternity in a photograph I still have. His step-mother worked for Hallmark; I ended up working, briefly, for her.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find his house, and then, magically, I knew with all my heart I was sitting in front of it. 8208 Edgemoor…the number was missing on the curb, but I’d know his house anywhere.
I decided to go to Sharpstown Mall, and that was upsetting. I wasn’t prepared for such a major change.
The Mall itself is now like a Japanese/Mexican market… jewelry (“bling”) for sale in repetitive kiosks up and down the entranceway.
I have never seen so many dog tags, ridiculously large wristwatchs encrusted in fake (and real) diamonds, chains, chains, chains, nose/ear piercings available…. Shoe stores with 4 inch heels in golds and purples, also adorned with more chains and blingy bling, shining, screaming BUY ME.
I felt like the mall was catering to hookers and gangsters; everything was so cheap looking. It made me really, really sad to see the plethora of crap for sale…which isn’t to say it’s any different from the crap for sale at Neiman’s or Target….it’s all just STUFF that people feel they need to BUY to feel BETTER about their human condition.
I saw uptight/sad/angry/disconnected faces; I felt invisible, like a ghost trapped in a haunting.
I thought, “How does all this happen? How do people polarize into groups, and never, truly, interact?” In neighborhoods, in counties, across states and nations…starting here, in this mall. Starting in schools. Starting in homes…
I walked upstairs to where I had worked at a place called COASTAL COOKIES…and, my mouth fell open. Coastal Cookies is still THERE.
I almost started crying with happiness, I was so in disbelief.
I had no idea…I walked up to the counter and told one of the women working there, “I worked here over 30 years ago…” She looked at me like “Uh-huh…” but I could tell she was thinking, “Get some cookies, will ya?” So I got three different samples, and then she sort of softened and asked if I had known a woman named Kathy, but I told her I just remembered working with three or four other teens….I thanked her, and meandered on, munching on the cookies (man, still so good!) and stopping to gently let a woman know her child was screaming because the little girl’s shoes were off her feet; the shoes were being dragged by the strap digging into her little girl ankles. The woman grabbed the little girl and started shoving her shoes back on the child’s feet.
I was thinking love love love send them both love eat another cookie let it go.
Walking past a store on the way out, I had to turn around to make sure I was seeing something right. It was a tee shirt that said “Nude Dancing” with silhouettes of naked women, which was a bit odd, but what had made me turn around was this: a grotesque charicature of a black woman with large lips, long, falling breasts with these oversized neon-pink discs for nipples, wearing white fishnet hose on her legs….with no feet.
Her legs just tapered off into nothing, and she was holding a cigarette in one hand. I couldn’t believe it. I just stood there and stared and stared, thinking maybe someone else would come join me, and they would stare and stare, and eventually, everyone in the mall would come over, maybe even folks from the Buddhist Temple would arrive, and at some point the owner of the store would peek his/her head out and ask, “What are you all staring at?”
and we’d all cry out in unison, “That shirt is wrong. Please stop selling it.” And then he/she’d say, “You know what. You’re right. What are we teaching one another?
What am I saying by selling that destructive attire?” Then, without a second thought, that shirt would be out of the window, along with all the shirts of death and skulls and hatred and blood and violence that just sit there, laughing at all the passerbys, laughing because those negative images are winning and they have altered our lives, they have made people think ugly things and I just stood there.
Alone. No one else seemed to notice anything about the shoes, the shirts, the money being wasted. (Don’t think I didn’t just do this in D.C. when my sister-in-law took us to Neiman’s and I was dumbstruck with the additional ugliness…. Christmas ornaments for hundreds of dollars. Did Christ even carry a wallet? Wouldn’t He rip the shirts out of these temples of dollars???? Wouldn’t He be appalled that people are making and selling crap in His name?)
On the way out the door, I saw an older Korean woman sitting alone on a bench, and she looked as lost as I felt. All the noise, the teenagers covered in tattoos smoking cigarettes, looking like time bombs with these weird, intense looks on their faces…, all the young mothers with amazing peacock colors in their hair and uncomfortable shirts, too much breast, too many jeans falling down… I was looking for eyes where I could find peace. The woman looked at me with fear, and I smiled, softly. She relaxed, she smiled back. The connection of a moment’s grace…two people lost in a sea of the new Gods of ugly desire.
Two people wondering, “How did it come to this?”
I threw up, once, in the parking lot of this mall. In college. I was very sick. I left a mark, long gone, that I will never forget. I felt bad, then, that I was leaving my sick on the ground, but there was no way to do anything about it.
As I walked to my car, all the old gum in the parking lot, spit out and discarded without care, was sticking under my shoes. Desperate little stickies clinging for me to stay.
Most of the gum was silenced; blackened, burnished into the ground. T-Bone Burnett was on the radio as I started up my motor… I drove to find a place to type up these feelings.