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Streets

Some people are born and grow up in one place, sometimes even one house.  Then there are others who move a couple of times, maybe even to different cities.  Then there’s my family.  We moved around like neurotic nomads from place to place within cities; and then from coast to coast, ricocheting back and forth in ever widening caroms.

Probably the only thing that kept us in the same country is that we never had passports or much money.

Wichita, Tulsa, LA, Miami, LA, Miami, Tulsa, LA, Miami.  I think that’s the sequence.  Though my older sister Laura (and now co-holder of family lore – along with our brother Luis) informed me a few months ago that we used to live in San Diego.  Wow, I don’t remember that one…..  By my most recent count (throwing in San Diego) I have lived in 38 different places, most of the changes occurring in my youth.

Now, don’t think that I’m complaining, for on my own I moved to New York City, Seattle and Atlanta.  So this is really a story of learned behavior.

As a kid, I was not only voiceless in any objections to moving (if you haven’t heard, kids apparently crave stability), but I was also almost never privy to the details, the rationale. I bounced around with the adults and the older kids, sometimes with a few members splintering off only to reunite, sometimes years later.

The only thing I could do was try to get to know new kids fast, that was no problem.  But I also learned to not get too close; I guess that was also not a problem.  As a result (not to sound conceited here) I was usually the least sad of my friends when the inevitable uprooting occurred.  It turned out I’d miss places more than people.

From the earliest times I was fascinated with geography and with city streets.  I loved infrastructure and the trappings of civilization.  I felt that if I could learn my local streets it would make my time in a place more real, and maybe even make my stay there permanent.  Subconsciously I tried to actualize permanence by walking back and forth and memorizing details with my senses.

I came to refer to it as “rewalking.’

My first exercise in this occurred in West Tulsa Oklahoma, 3rd Street it was.  This was my first, and it taught me several things about memory and feeling, about the permanence of buildings but also the changeability of people.  These were things that would stay with me on every future street haunt.  Here’s a pic:Tulsa

This photo is from 2011, but it could well be 1979, the year I attempted to make this place my own.  We’re looking at 3rd street, east towards Ziegler Park.  I lived a couple of blocks up around the corner on the left.  Behind me 5 blocks back was the Red Bud, where I bought my candy with my lawn mowing allowance.

If I stare at this photo long enough I can almost see a shadowy smaller me on my Huffy (I was endlessly teased about that bike) riding back home with a giant Laffy Taffy and my friend Kevin in tow.  Once under a similar sky I rode home fast because I could see three funnel clouds poking out of the cloudy overhang during a storm.  It was like “Wizard of Oz,” but just the black and white part.  The varicose-vein street cracks are the same, the utility poles and fences; all the houses, exactly the same.  It’s winter in the pic, I usually remember it in the summer.

See the trees and the flat terrain?  It may look bleak to you but I didn’t think of it that way, for it was all I knew.  Whether walking or biking I would glance left and right at intersections and wonder about the people who lived in those houses.  Did they know 3rd Street as well as I did?  I doubted it.

It turned out that though I’d learned all the nuances of over a mile of this street; this was not permanence, for by ’79 I was relocated to the West Coast.  I found as I got older I would never stop trying to make places my own.

The next street was and still is my favorite.  I didn’t have a bike but I had a skateboard and roller skates, I was a disco kid and I had a lot to learn, to memorize.  It was here that I learned that though buildings may be torn down and replaced, the feeling cultivated early on just never leaves.  And that, for me, was a feeling of wonder.  Here it is:Hlwdblvd

 

Hollywood Boulevard, between Cahuenga and Wilcox; Los Angeles California.  How different can you get, right?  Here in this newish photo we’re looking west towards Beverly Hills.  We lived down here, right around the corner on the right past the big Warners radio towers above my favorite theater, the Pacific.  We lived here, not in the Hills; unfortunately our lives were more like the movie “Slums of Beverly Hills.”

But look at the photo, it’s sunny, there are palm trees and hills, it was paradise to me.  It was like the color portion of “Wizard of Oz” come to life, albeit with hookers and roaches.  I saw it and still remember it as being amazing and could go on and on about it (and have in several other stories) ad infinitum.

It was warm almost all the time, there were a lot more cars, there was arroyo and there were people from Mexico and Armenia.  Sometimes it smelled like stuff burning because there was either a brush fire in the Hills or the smog was really bad that day.  It was glamorous to me because I knew what went on in the nearby soundstages.  “Silver Spoons” filmed next to my school.  A few blocks away I saw an episode of “Laverne and Shirley” being taped.  You really can’t tell from looking at pics but there was a ton of mystery and magic going on behind those doors and windows.

I ‘rewalked’ back and forth, almost neurotically, learning details of the Artisan’s Alley and whose stars needed touching up due to cracks or pits (Jack Benny, Ringo Starr).  I learned it so well I thought we’d surely be there forever.  There were a few scares as we moved around the neighborhood and then permanence finally died and I was disappointed again.  We up and moved to Florida.  But largely, even now, that Boulevard of Dreams in Hollywood remains the same.

You might never know it from the following photo but South Beach was a downer.  Everything was flat again (like in Tulsa) and although there were palm trees (they weren’t like the ones in LA anyway), it didn’t make me feel at home.  Here I walked the main drag, Washington Avenue, only because I had to. My sister and I plied our way back and forth to Miami Beach Senior High School on this street.   Here’s a shot:MB

 

South Beach may have gentrified but look at this photo and then picture everything around it looking like that Giveaway store on the right.  Bleak and hot.  That learned feeling from 1982 never left me.  This was a move I was really not happy about.  My feelings stayed that way and have (ironically) never gentrified the way the neighborhood eventually did.

Because of the historical preservation of the buildings, the look is largely the same but nowadays there is youth, energy and excitement.  All of the stores are open where once they were shuttered.  When I was a kid I felt like one of the old people that lived there then.  I had traded the glitz of Hollywood for a bleached, sandy ghost town.

Even now, while visiting that street, I continually look for a place to get out of the sun.  Being there somehow makes me feel older.  It’s not like that for any other of my streets or even for other streets in the same ‘hood.

Feelings about a place can be un-learned but I never took the time with this one.

But thankfully I eventually got to be old enough to move out on my own.  My choices, but still my habits, with a lot more to learn.  Though it was now up to me to leave or stay in a place, my “streetwalking” (if you will) was an ingrained thing and something that from Miami days on I always derived joy from.  Guess where?:Broadway

 

Yeah!  Broadway looking south from Great Jones; New York, New York.  Except for the absence of Canal Jeans down the road nothing has changed from 1987 until now.  In New York I collected a lot of streets to memorize (over twenty, and some of them were really long circuitous routes), but this is a pic of my best route; Broadway from 8th Street down to the Financial District.  A long jaunt, to be sure, but never boring.  I was and still am compelled to walk it when I am in town.  New York streets are the deepest in my soul and I can’t NOT rewalk them when I’m in The City.

It smelled bad (usually), and I learned to walk fast and avoid people.  It was noisy and beautiful. No eye contact.  That was hard because I usually make eye contact with strangers.  It’s historically been my way of saying, “Hi, I’m always new here, and by the way, where am I now?”  I wondered how many of them were lucky enough to call themselves ‘long-term residents.’

The streets were a grid, I could apply logic to my rewalking efforts- it fit in perfectly.  It was great.  Here’s my main residential walk:7th ave

 

7th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, looking southeast from Second Street.  Here I learned the street while under varying levels of inebriation.  But I learned it just the same, bouncing from bars to liquor stores at all hours.  This area is now melancholy to me because I lost my love (temporarily, it turned out) just a few blocks ahead and on the right.

The brownstones are the same, (except for the one that a DC-9 crashed into back in 1960) there are some new stores but they’re sometimes run by the same Slope Neighborhoodies I remembered from the early Nineties.

Everywhere I moved I encountered people who’d never left the area, and Park Slope was no exception.  I memorized new places with a simmering envy of long time residents.  But I learned and I revisited, like I was making furrows deeper and deeper in soft clay.  As if maybe it would take longer for them to be erased.

Even now when I go to New York I do the same walks, usually alone, so I can think the old thoughts and have the old feelings.  It takes me back there; and time loops back on itself.  The then becomes now.  It happens every time.  I have thoughts here I’d never have any place else.  I have to be there to trigger it, a conversation I thought I’d forgotten (no, it was right there!), an old favorite shirt….but I’m nostalgic about everything in the past, even sun drenched Washington Avenue back in Miami.

Moving on again, here’s a happy shot of my most recent ‘rewalk’:65th

 

View Ridge, NE 65th Street looking east (as all Seattleites metaphorically do) towards lovely Lake Washington; Seattle, Washington.  My choice was for real this time, for I was not going away from somewhere, but rather towards.  This was my town.  1999, 2007, it doesn’t matter – it’s all the same.  It’s not like you might think, the air is always clean and the sky is cobalt blue during the summer (like when this pic was taken).  People stand at crosswalks and wait for the signal.  People add on to their houses by hoisting them up in the air and building below.  They have monkey trees and moss on the sidewalks.  Things here are a little different.  In this city I learned the streets; but without any attendant neurosis.  For it was good, I felt safe.  I learned to walk a little slower and stop jaywalking.  Here’s my street from when I first arrived in town:Greenwood

 

Greenwood Avenue, looking south from 84th Street, Seattle, Washington.  I lived just behind the pic and to the left, in an old building constructed for the ’62 World’s Fair.  I felt and feel that I was lucky to ever get to live here and I joyfully walked north and south, to and fro, and actually did make it my own.  Permanence stuck to me as long as I wanted it to.  Seattle will always be my hometown because it’s the one I got to choose.  Of course I may name other cities based on a story I’m unspooling but it’s here, it’ll always be here.

Eight years in Seattle and I moved again, compelled not by wanderlust, but by recovering my lost Brooklyn love.  We now live in Metro Atlanta.  Happily, I no longer need to learn the grid, for I don’t have to worry anymore, she’s my family and wherever we go, we go together.  I’m home, I take it with me.  She and her family are mine now, even with my own scattered about yet still closer than ever.  I have a sense of belonging I’d never had before, my melancholic wanderings are gone.

But now that I lack the compelling need to learn my surroundings, after five years here (and counting) I still get lost in my own neighborhood.

3 replies
  1. Luis Zea
    Luis Zea says:

    I am Bill’s older brother, Luis. As he has related in other stories, Bill was uprooted many times during his childhood, as was I. I can’t speak for him, but to this day, the idea of moving to another domicile generates instant stomach acid. The unpleasant memories of rootlessness runs deep in both of us. Fortunately we both married women that helped ground us. But to this day, when I read one of Bill’s remembrances, that old anxious thought of “where and when are we going to pack up and move again?” springs unbidden to mind.

    I’ve always wondered what it would be like to experience a childhood where you lived in one place, or just a handful of places, instead of moving constantly, sometimes twice a year. How might the security of continuity have shaped myself and my brother and two sisters, keeping childhood friendships for years instead of regarding those relationships as ephemeral ones that could not last more than one or two school semesters? What did Bill and I–and our sisters Laura and Mary–lose by having so many relationships severed so abruptly? I do know I have an atavistic urge to read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” I think I’ll finally get around to it this year. Maybe Bill will, too.

    Reply
  2. Laura
    Laura says:

    Love is more expansive than the street grids you’ve walked. It is a much better place to be, home with the one you love, than wandering about. All roads led to Izzy – What a great thing!

    Reply

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