Orange, California, September, 1946. Mom was walking me to my first day of kindergarten—was she kicking me out of the house? We crossed the playground toward the school building—an enormous, old three-story wooden cube with a green-shingled hip roof and windows that stared out with unblinking eyes. Mother pointed to a cave-like entrance under the entrance stairs. “That’s the boys’ bathroom. The girls’ is on the other side; never go in there.” She said goodbye as I climbed the wooden steps to where Mrs. Brennan extended her carefully-tended white hand. I glanced behind me to see my mother disappearing across the playground. I felt my ties to home weakening. When we entered, I smelled the waxed hardwood floor and gawked at the broad staircase that rose from the entrance hall toward second floor.
Mrs. Brenan let me into the classroom. I’d never seen such high ceilings, and three enormous windows looked out on the playground. The class spent the morning getting organized and reading from our Dick and Jane books.
At noon Mrs. Brennan said, “You may eat downstairs in the lunchroom or outside under the playground shelter.” Students walked to the cloakroom and grabbed lunches out of their cubbyholes. I left the building and wandered around the vast playground, hungry, wondering why my mother had not packed me a lunch.
Principal Ebersole saw me. “Are you in kindergarten?”
“Why are you still here? Kindergarten ends at noon.”
“Mrs. Brennan never told us to go home.”
“Mrs. Brennan? She’s the first-grade teacher. You should have been in Mrs. Baker’s class.”
“No one told me . . .”
My mom came in our car to pick me up. Thus ended my first day in school. When I got out of the car and walked into our house, I experienced for the first time the joy of walking through my own door and “coming home.”
The next morning, my neighbor Jerry and I walked together to school. Heading down Cambridge Street we walked by Mr. Wheeler’s avocado orchard, then turned left on Culver with its tall palm trees. We passed a dark, stuccoed house with tall grass, overgrown bushes and shades pulled down. “A witch lives there,” Jerry told me. We started running.
A block farther, we looked down Harwood Street and saw the tiny store that sold Bazooka gum, M&Ms, and candy cigarettes. We searched our pockets for change. I had none, so I opened the little paper packet that Mom had sent with me and used my milk money.
After a few weeks we got braver, and would cut through Joe’s “lumberyard,” a chaotic stockpile of chairs, metal tables, old doors, window frames with peeling paint, derelict staircases, ceiling trusses, broken strips of siding, toilet bowls, bathtubs, kitchen sinks and faucets, piles of used lumber—all strewn helter-skelter, with little rabbit runs winding between. It looked like a ghost town hit by a tornado.
Stray cats haunted the woodpiles, along with the occasional rabbit. Once we saw a coyote. And then there was Sam the Tramp, who guarded the lumberyard with his snarly dog Butch. Unshaven, he had long dishwater-gray hair and torn brown pants too big for him, scuffed shoes with holes in the leather, and a ripped straw hat. He slept in a little tarpaper shack that stood amidst the lumber and debris. He didn’t talk; he just sat on his old chair and stared at us until we took off running. Jerry told me, “I think he’s a serial killer.”
At school, you tried to stay away from bullies like Gary and Sherman. But Gary, a terrifying pustule of ego with bulbous eyes and puffy face, gave me my first bloody nose. And Sherman, with an IQ below the range of his body temperature, would wear only a white tee shirt and loved to push boys down in the gravel. I avoided him until the day Mom invited him to go to church with us. Awkward. Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” surely did not include Gary or Sherman, I thought.
But the Center Street girls fascinated me. They seemed a different species, running around the gravely Center Street playground in starched dresses with little white collars and with white bows in their hair.
We had Okies and Arkies. Their parents had fled the Midwest in the 1930s to escape the terrible dustbowl droughts. The parents took over the jobs the locals did not want—they began to replace the Mexican orange pickers in the orchards. The girls in their faded dresses looked as if their mothers had forgotten to comb their hair. The boys wore longer, disheveled hair, overalls instead of jeans, and they talked funny. Big belt buckles. You didn’t want to sit next to them. If they sniffed something, they would lean over and smell your crotch.
Most Mexicans lived on the other side of Glassell and went to Killefer School, but Orange was one of the first districts to integrate them, so in first grade, we got Richard Herrera. Brown-skinned with straight black hair, he wore a tiny crucifix that hung from a gold chain.
In the classroom, we sat at cast-iron-legged wooden desks on which some past students had carved their initials. A hole was cut in the top for an ink jar, the purpose of which, my dad told me was for dipping the pigtails of the girl in front of you. But we used pencils instead of ink. At front, a pencil sharpener hung on the wall. Once when I blew inside it to clean out the shavings, pulverized lead flew out all over my face.
We always started our day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It was years before I learned what “republic” and “indivisible” meant. I liked singing the patriotic songs and learning about the pilgrims. We sang “America the Beautiful” and songs about the Chiapanecas girls with their swirly skirts, and songs about leading mules down the sixteen miles on the Erie Canal. I learned to form letters and to add and subtract. Being left-handed, I would pull my pencil across the page and slant the letters the wrong way. The teacher gave up trying to change me.
Mid mornings, we marched down to the lunchroom where we drank little cartons of milk. It was free if you were low-income. At noon, the piercing sound of the buzzer signaled our release. Some of us would go to the playground and eat our lunches under a wood canopy that shielded us against the sun. Most kids ate bologna or cheese sandwiches. They made fun of my mom’s mayonnaise and avocado sandwiches, made with avocados from our own trees. After lunch break, we would stomp back up the steps to the classrooms.
Every Wednesday, the higher grades got to practice jumping onto a fire escape slide that spiraled down from the third floor. During Cub Scout nights, some of us would sneak up to third floor and feel our way in the dark over to the slide. One after another we would launch, whizzing down the slick slide. We found the exit doors locked, so we had to climb back up the slide. One night the principal caught us. But it was totally worth it.
Out on the playground, the painful Los Angeles basin smog burned our throats. But in winter, the fifty-mile-per-hour Santana winds would roll hot and dry down the slopes of the coastal mountains. The trees swung their leaves like nets and shed some of their smaller branches. The wind would blow all the smog out to sea, leaving the air so clean it quivered.
The playground was gravelly dirt—you didn’t want to fall down. The merry-go-round was a marvel of perpetual motion that seemed to spin forever. If it spun too fast, the bearings would grind, and it would throw kids off. They would stumble, then roll. The tall swings had canvas seats held by long chains. The fifth graders told us they could pump the swings so hard they looped-the-loop. I had nightmares about looping, then crashing down on the high crossbar. I would spend hours shooting baskets at the one sad, sagging iron hoop. Kids would jump and grab the parallel bars with dirty, sweaty hands and swing. Some dared to do the “dead man’s drop,” where you got swinging by your knees, then released at the top of your swing and tried to land on your feet. When I “dropped,” I landed on my back and knocked the wind out of my lungs. The girls would swing upside down on the bars, trying to hold their dresses against their legs. They would yell, “Get your eyes full!” We did.
At the end of my fifth grade, Center Street finally closed her doors. That day, anyone could slide down the fire escape—even the principal! But soon they bulldozed the school to the ground. Later, Jerry and I were walking through Joe’s junkyard when we saw an abandoned metal helix lying on its side, forlorn and forsaken. We stared at the last resting place of the old fire escape slide.
I loved Center Street elementary. It was a gentle transition from my home into the wider world.