I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid

My writers’ group spent a spirited morning last month discussing “place” and how one’s home and environment affect one’s life story. We gave ourselves the assignment of writing a short essay on where we are from – below is my contribution.

I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid
I haven’t always spent my days in the whistling corridors of the Financial District, Nights and weekends are spent across the Bay in San Leandro – a blue collar burg known for its cherries in the 19th century and now as a place with parking but no where, other than fast food and Chinese to eat.

I was born in Oakland, California in the sterile halls of the Naval Hospital on the hill above Highway 580 and the Oakland Zoo. It was the same place where my father recuperated from his second more serious injury that he sustained in Vietnam. My younger brother was born there too. We would visit the hospital grounds often – not because we were a sickly family, but because it was beautifully set in a valley of rolling oak studded hills and because it had a wonderful, indoor pool where my father could stretch his tortured muscles and we kids could work up an appetite. It also had acres of blackberries that we gathered in buckets for pancakes, muffins, pies, and just for eating on the car ride home.

My parents moved to San Leandro, just before I was born in 1975. They bought a small three bedroom bungalow that was built to accommodate the first wave of GI’s coming home in the 40’s. The streets of this neighborhood were named for WWII associated people and places: Halsey, Patton, Midland, Darius, Wake, Neptune, Montrose, Ardmore and Lark.

The house was various shades of brown complete with an orange shag carpet and a mustard yellow kitchen. The previous owners had been motorcyclists that parked their bikes on the living room rug and cooked their dinner in the fireplace. Evidence of this was long cleaned up but I always wondered who they were and imagined they looked like more dangerous versions of the guys my dad would bring home for his monthly poker party. These were the days when the Hells Angels noticeably ruled the Oakland area.

My dad worked for the Veteran’s Administration in San Francisco and his coworkers were naturally veterans –some injured but nearly all wore leather and beards and smoked like fiends. My dad only smoked in the confines of his poker room, our converted garage.

Poker night was a bit of a carnival for us kids – my next door neighbor Sam, a boy exactly between my brother’s ages – would come over while his dad played poker, and we’d eat ice cream and pizza and watch scary movies till the party broke up. The next morning, the room was always a sight to behold – beer and whiskey bottles everywhere, cigarette ash spilling out of bottle green ashtrays, poker chips scattered, and the occasional item of fascination: a roach clip, a cigar cutter, or some other bit of masculine ephemera.

All four of my grandparents grew up in the Oakland area. My father spent his youth good naturedly getting into trouble – building tree forts, and throwing rocks with the gangs of boys in his neighborhood – later he indulged in a little light burglary of those same neighbors – it was this penchant for danger that encouraged him to join the Marines when he turned 18. That and the fear of the draft.

My mother was raised in San Leandro in the house I live in now, about a mile from my childhood home. She led the virginal life of a dentist’s daughter in bobby socks and crisply pleated skirts. She went to the schools that I went to and to the ones my daughter will attend, happily being squired about town by young lads affiliated with her parent’s dance club.

My grandparent’s house, now mine, is a small yellow rancher on a cul-de-sac. It once was “Pepto” pink but it’s been yellow with green trim since the 70’s and I’ll keep it that way. It reminds me of old Sunset magazine pictures – the embodiment of “California living” a la working class. The residents are a close knit group – some have lived there for 40 years and some are newly moved in. We all get together several times a year for potlucks in the driveway, to watch the kids ride bikes in the street, or for drinks in the “speakeasy” – a probably illegal basement in the house across the street.

As I work in the City, often people gawk in disbelief when I tell them I live in the East Bay. “How can you? What’s to do there?” they say as if San Francisco were the center of the universe. Perhaps to them it is but in the East Bay there are always open hills to roam and the sun is always warm on my western facing porch, the BART train can faintly be heard when the wind is right and somewhere there’s always a lawn mower going. As my best neighbor friend says on warm summer evenings just when the mosquitoes come out – “it’s so god-damned American it hurts!” This place I call home.


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1 Comment

  1. Dolores
    Aug 8, 2014

    Love it!

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