this essay was first published in New Purlieu Review, June 2013
Any Place I Hang My Hat
When I was eleven or twelve, my family moved from 707 Seabright Lane to 717 Seabright Lane, two doors away. We lived for a total of three years in these lookalike post-war tract houses. Rooms and events bleed together like runny watercolors, indistinguishable in my mind.
I remember pulling my red rusted Radio Flyer wagon, loaded high, one hand on top to keep it steady, from house one to house two. Repeated trips hauling clothes, boxes of shoes, books, toys and knick-knacks, linens and pillows, pots and pans. My mother packed the boxes in her efficient and exacting way, carrying more fragile goods herself or entrusting their transportation to my older brother. He and my father rolled the furniture down the street on dollies. There was a forced jolliness, as if it was some kind of lark—“Isn’t this fun?”—but this was our fourth move in as many years, and I was distressed at being uprooted yet again.
Solana Beach is a small Southern California coastal town, smaller still in the 1950s, and growing up there was idyllic for a child. Everything was within walking distance: my friends, the library, the drugstore soda fountain, a movie theater with Saturday matinees, and of course the beach. We were never at a loss for things to do during our summers: all day, every day we camped at the beach, getting nut brown and coming home salty and sandy, hungry and tired. In the early years my friends and I busied ourselves catching waves on rubber rafts, building fanciful structures out of wet sand, chasing and flogging each other with strings of seaweed, scooping sand crabs from the receding tide that squirmed and tickled our hands. This gave way in our pre-teens to body-surfing and diving under high breakers, basting ourselves with baby lotion and “laying out” in tanning competitions, listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino on transistor radios, and giggling at or about the boys. Lifeguards kept watch for sharks and imminent drownings; otherwise we were free, unsupervised. Our parents didn’t worry about other, more menacing dangers that threaten children today.
We moved from New York in 1949, following the westward migration of my father’s family after the war. After two dreary years in San Francisco we took a vacation trip down the coast to Solana Beach to visit my dad’s sister. The appeal was instantaneous and unanimous. We returned home for long enough to tidy up affairs and pack our belongings—there was nothing to hold us there—then we headed south to resettle in this sunny paradise. We spent the first months with Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bud. My uncle was the on-call chief of the volunteer fire department, and their garage the firehouse. There was no pole to slide down, so when the alarm rang in the night, blasting everyone from their sleep, Uncle Bud would leap down the stairs, race off in the fire truck, and the household would return into hushed slumber, the commotion causing only a momentary stir.
The house still stands, now an auto repair shop, while the neighborhood has gentrified around it. The lumberyard across the street was replaced by an architecturally-distinguished train station; the post-war Quonset huts in the next block now comprise a “design district” housing artisans’ studios, galleries and trendy shops. The fire department attained professional status and a full-time chief; it moved up the hill to a real fire station at what was once the eastern end of town. Solana Beach and its neighboring towns of Del Mar, Cardiff, Encinitas and Leucadia formed an archipelago, a string of small landlocked islands dotting the coast, separated from each other and from San Diego by short stretches of Highway 101. The I-5 freeway was completed in the 1960s, followed by an infestation of housing developments and strip malls that stretched the town’s boundaries and eliminated our isolation and our bucolic idyll. The entire region grew unchecked and became the county’s most coveted place to live, and from a population of 3,000 in 1950, our sleepy seaside town incorporated in 1986 and is now an upscale city of 13,000.
We were perpetual renters. My folks had owned our white-picket-fence-suburban bungalow in Franklin Square, Long Island, and they had every intention of putting down roots here, but they held back, passing up opportunities to get in on the ground floor of the housing boom until they were priced out of the market. Lots of working-class families rent, but the frequency of our moves defied reason. Eight houses in ten years in the same town. I never knew why, never asked, but speculated on the possibilities. Were we deadbeats, undesirable tenants? Or just unlucky, pushed out by owners moving back or selling to cash in on profits? We were stationary wanderers, running in place.
We lived on both sides of the railroad tracks, literally, that divided the town. Our first house was a run-down shanty on the highway, wedged between commercial properties. We could feel the vibrations in the walls and floors from the trucks rumbling by day and night; diesel fumes seeped through closed and curtained windows. My best friend, Jean Anne, lived just a few doors away, upstairs from the Teddy Bear Café, which her parents owned and operated. We would go there after school for slices of her mother’s fresh-baked pies—rhubarb, berry, lemon meringue—their aroma wafting from the restaurant kitchen up to her room.
The following year we were living in a cliffside mansion overlooking the ocean. No rags to riches story—we were house-sitting, rent free. The sprawling quarters rested behind a wooded expanse at the top of a private drive. I had a room of my own, my first, and there was a guest house that we used for Scout meetings and sleepovers, a bathroom accessible from outside for showering after coming in from the beach. Only a few yards separated the house from the cliff, and that sheer drop revealed, or was perhaps the root of, my fear of heights. One evening I arrived home from the movies at dusk. My parents didn’t answer my calls. The house was empty. I went from room to room and then out back, by then crying into the shadows. “Mom? Dad? Where are you?” They rarely went out and wouldn’t have done so without telling me. I was sure they’d toppled off the bluff. I ran in panic to the nearest neighbor, where I found them quietly sipping cocktails. They chided me for my alarm: “Why are you in such a tizzy? Where did you think we’d gone? Silly girl!”
When this Xanadu interlude ended, we headed back across the tracks to the two houses on Seabright Lane. The back yards—identical expanses of yellowed weeds and snake-inhabited woodpiles—abutted the train tracks, which were declared off limits to us kids, making them all the more enticing. We would stand on the embankment and wave at the passengers and crew on the trains rumbling by between San Diego and Los Angeles. Sometimes we would scramble down and put coins, nuts, and pieces of fruit on the tracks, then dart back up to safety to watch them splatter and flatten. I loved the trains’ deafening roar and would slip out there by myself in the late afternoon and scream at the top of my lungs as the southbound commuter express roared past.
The Del Mar Fair was a brief change of pace every summer, starting in late June and ending with a big fireworks extravaganza on the Fourth of July. Almost every day we would sneak in the back side by the railroad tracks, mucking through boggy sludge and slimy grasses, scrambling over a couple of fences. We reveled in the prickle of danger, the risk of getting caught, the heady thrill of success and its desired outcome: getting in free. We saved our allowance for the food, games, and rides. I stuck to the Teacups and Bumper Cars, the tame “baby rides”—even the Tilt-a-Whirl, which didn’t leave the ground, was too dizzying for me—but would watch in awe and horror as my friends shrieked with joy while being swooped high or flung upside-down on gravity-defying thrill rides. We played ring-toss and other carnival games, winning stuffed animals and useless trinkets, and ate junk food—sno-cones, candy apples and cotton candy—in the days before deep-fried Twinkies and Snickers bars. As teenagers, our focus shifted, as it did at the beach, and it was all about boys—flirting with boys, meeting boys. Letting a boy exhibit his machismo and keen aim by knocking down milk bottles and presenting me with the prize. Necking behind the tents.
The horse races at Del Mar followed the fair. The region burgeoned with the influx of the big-spending race crowds, Hollywood celebrities in chauffeur-driven limos among them. Seabright Lane was an unposted dead-end street, and at the close of the track each day, a stream of cars would snake down the street looking for a shortcut to the highway. My brother and I would flag them down to tell them that it didn’t go through but they could turn around in our driveway. If they’d had a good day, a winner or two, they might reward us—“Here, kid”—passing loose change or dollar bills, even an occasional fiver, out the window.
The main population of town was glaringly Anglo-white, while a sizable Mexican community occupied its own space, La Colonia, on the outskirts of town. Locals and visitors alike would go out there for authentic Mexican food; I grew up on the turkey tacos at Tony’s Jacal. The first African-American family in town was the Carpenters, doubly jarring to wary locals as they were a mixed-race couple—Mrs. Carpenter was white. I became friends with Len, their daughter, tall and graceful with light-caramel skin, riotously funny. When it became known that I had invited her to a birthday slumber party, a few parents sent regrets on behalf of their daughters.
I turned thirteen and embarked on my troubled teens at the time my brother graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, leaving home for good. It was justification for the next move, downsizing to the first of three progressively smaller duplexes. With his departure my folks seemed to weary of their parental roles, and family life disintegrated. I took advantage of their benign neglect to exercise my growing independence. When I was seventeen, we moved to the last of these shrinking dwellings, a place with one bedroom—for them—and a closet-sized alcove separated from the living room by a peek-a-boo louvered door, for me.
In spite of occasional fits of pique at my family’s peripatetic proclivities it didn’t bother me as much then as it did at some later point, when with self-righteous hindsight I decided I’d been deprived of something, a real “home” with my height notched into a doorway as a permanent marker of my growth and the family’s stability.
Right after my eighteenth birthday I moved out on my own. By then I was attending community college and working in San Diego, and most of my friends were there. I’d found my niche in the busy, noisy city life—only twenty miles but seemingly light years away—a liberated young sophisticate, or so I saw myself, sharing low-rent urban apartments with a series of rotating roommates. My parents moved again, this time to a mobile home where there was no room should I decide I wanted to move back, and where they stayed put until my mother’s death fifteen years later. Tensions were eased by our separation, and I visited regularly, enjoying mom’s cooking and the care packages she sent home with me. I was oblivious to the town, glad to be out of it. I had moved on, and home was wherever I was currently hanging my hat.
I still live in San Diego, and occasionally I go to Solana Beach for walks, to shop and have lunch. The old highway is now signposted as “Historic 101,” and the once-treacherous Torrey Pines Grade, then the only route to San Diego, is a scenic alternative to the freeway. I’m drawn to the town now, but I consider it purely coincidental, not a sentimental attachment, not “home.” For many people home is where they grew up, some variation of the pastoral abode with smoke curling from the chimney, pie cooling on the sill, a light in the window. Think Thomas Kincaid. I find the idea a bit hokey, but how would I know? There’s nothing concrete here, no structure, that I can point to and say, “That is, or was, my home.”
Having been denied this experience, I’d built up a disproportionate fantasy about home as the necessary ingredient for a happy family, something Tolstoy neglected to mention, something it took me time to dispel. In her novel Run River, Joan Didion writes about a family long established in the Sacramento Valley. Everett and his sisters inherit the family ranch, and he stays to run it after his sisters have moved on. One of his sisters comes back to visit, and he notes with irritation that “she did not now call it home.” Why would she, I wondered? She has her own life, and Philadelphia, where she’s lived since she married at 17, was “back home.”
One day earlier this summer I drove up to Solana Beach and cruised around searching for vestiges of my past, something I hadn’t done on previous visits. The house on the highway was torn down soon after we left; the Teddy Bear Café is long gone too, although a place called Mr. T’s Café pays homage nearby. The mansions on the cliff have made way for luxury condo developments with evocative names like Las Brisas and Seascape. Sales signs hawk these “view homes” in the current real estate jargon that conflates house with home. On Seabright Lane, 701 is barely recognizable—add-ons extend above, behind and on both sides of the original façade—and two doors away, 717 has been supplanted by a sleek, modern replacement. Ditto the duplexes, razed and rebuilt.
The public beach is now called Fletcher Cove, after one of the founding families, but it’s the same sheltered inlet where I spent so much of my childhood. Attractive landscaping and stonework have been added, including a mosaic and rock piece embedded in the concrete walkway at the edge of the overlook, a quote from Longfellow:
Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the
waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.
And that’s what I do. I gaze down to the shore at low tide, its broad expanse of sand strewn with strings of seaweed, like beaded, russet-hued scarves. Children splash at the surf’s edge or squat with candy-colored plastic pails and shovels over sand castles and excavations. Teenagers, slathered in tanning potions, are spread out on towels to catch every ray of the sun. I feel a warm rush of recognition.
Yes, there’s a tug, call it what you will. I’ve come to terms with the ghosts of my not-so-pitiable childhood and can stop fighting the fact that the town itself beckons. Like the aroma of handmade tortillas at Tony’s and the salty, vinegary cabbage salad that hasn’t changed in fifty years. Is that what nostalgia is, the lure of the familiar, like the comfort food of childhood? I breathe deeply, inhaling the salty air and the fresh breeze, before I turn back to my car and head for home.