Life on “the Ave” was a blissful time for me when I was a little boy. My cousin Mike, like most age-appropriate cousins, was a built in best friend hand chosen by God. We did what little boys do, or at least did in the 70’s before TV became our nanny, caregiver and teacher. We played in the high grass, stomped through the mud, we hid and spied on and generally annoyed the older cousins. I learned to ride a bike on the Ave, dodging giant puddles that made the task of learning to ride a bike about ten times harder than it had to be. The first time I made the whole street, Mike and the older cousins cheered for me the entire wobbly way. We had fun. We were inseparable. For a very brief while I thought that I had tapped into what my father’s childhood was like. It would be many years, I would be practically a teenager, before I would learn how wrong I was.
I think it’s fitting that the street my father grew up on was named Railroad Ave. There really are tracks in my hometown and my dad grew up on the wrong side of them. The squalor that I saw on the Ave was a massive upgrade to what my father had as a child. And in turn the life he had created for himself was a huge upgrade from the Ave. Understanding the difference those 3 miles across town meant to my Dad would be a huge step towards understanding the man.
I always knew my father was different from the rest of his family. I suppose I should just call it what it was, his family was poor. And they acted it. They weren’t much concerned with how they dressed. Many of them abused tobacco and alcohol. They spent money as soon as it was in their hands on frivolous items like jumbo boxes of candy, cigarettes, alcohol and fireworks. We all know the habits and stereotypes of poverty, and my father, despite having been textbook poor for his entire childhood, exhibited none of those traits. He was different and even though my young mind couldn’t isolate how so, it stood out when he was with his family. It wasn’t in such transparencies as how he dressed or spoke, etc., he just acted different. I understand it perfectly today; he was still under the effects of the memories of his upbringing, but he wasn’t carrying the lessons forward. He was setting new rules for his own family while not disrespecting his own. He wanted a better life.
As a reward for his hard work, selfless behavior and commitment to self-improvement, his family would refer to him, in muted tones, as “The Rich Kid.” They didn’t mean it as a compliment. The snarkiness and inappropriateness of that label was what I had been missing. And of course, the reasoning behind it. It was quite the Dick Slap to learn that my awesome Dad, whom I oozed respect for, was made fun of for simply wanting better for us.
It just happened one day recently. I think that I was trying to come up with a new Password for some website because I had entered the wrong one too many times. Boom. I realized that I don’t have much of an imagination. I don’t suppose I ever did. I was very into recreating things but I didn’t step much farther out of my comfort zone. I was probably most expressive when I was playing with my Matchbox cars, which I spent most of my time doing. Even with mountains of Trademark Orange track and a huge box of cars to work with in my room, I didn’t build empires. I stuck to what I knew. And outdoors, under my beloved pine tree, I limited my construction endeavors mostly to what I already knew. I built roads with Tonka Trucks, I used my car hauler, I used real mud in my Concrete mixers, and I pushed them around. Like they were real. I think Calvin and Hobbes used more imagination in one strip about playing in the dirt than I did in my entire life.
Despite not being an imaginative kid, I wasn’t without my skills. For example, at a very early age my mother identified me as a people watcher. Or “rude staring”, in my mother’s words. If someone or something caught my attention I was fixated on it. I never meant to be rude, I just liked to take it all in. And I had a terrible habit of speaking without a filter. It has been both a curse and a blessing, depending on who was on the other side of it.
My Grandmother was a constant presence at my house when I was little. I really enjoyed having her over and she kept my mother company. There is so much to say about her, and I will as the story progresses, but for the sake of this entry let’s focus on one critical factor about her.
She was a terrible driver. The worst. Even at a young age I was reticent about being in the car with her. She had a heavy foot, a reluctance to brake, and Stop Signs were, well, they were for other people. I suppose my Matchbox stories were a good example of it even at an early age.
One day she came in the house, her mouth going a million miles per hour as she told my mother about the incident she had with the “dang Po-lice” on the way over. Through the histrionics and across the many rooms of the first floor of my house I could hear her tell my mother her tale of injustice and overreach. The officer had the nerve to give her a speeding ticket. That day was one of the few times that I didn’t run into the kitchen to greet my Grandmother, it just seemed safer and smarter to stay in my room with my Matchbox cars. History and my limited experience at a young age suggested that I let her come to me this time.
Apparently I had dug through my big box of cars and had found a clunky red sedan that looked like the boat of a car Grandma drove, a big ol’ Lincoln that the front end arrived ten minutes before the rest of you did. I had also found one of my old beat up police cars. The stage was set for some hilarity. I began to act out the scenario I had heard playing out in the kitchen. Red car, pulled over by police car. I simulated an argument between the two parties, culminated by the officer telling the driver to get out of the car. I was having a blast when I looked up at the door to my room, occupied by my Grandmother. She had come to at last to say hello and there I was acting out her earlier humiliation.
When she realized what I was doing she wasn’t amused. My mother was of course amused enough for the both of them.
It was then that I realized how selective my Grandmother’s sense of humor really was.