Son the Burglar, Revisited
went to preschool in Arcadia, a Los Angeles suburb, or "bedroom
community" as it was known in the seventies. Life was peachy
and uncomplicated until my nineteen-year-old Aunt Kristen, Mom's
little sister, took off with a band of girlfriends for a year-long
backpacking journey across Europe. We were close, and she often
took me all the way to Balboa just for a chocolate-dipped frozen
banana. Europe meant nothing to my young mind. It was probably like
Pomona, or maybe La Cañada. My world was small. That was
until the postcards started to arrive. Lisbon. Roma. Heidelberg.
Hydra. No cartoon or pop-up book had ever inspired me as much as
knowing that magical places really existed, that you could go to
them. The cards were lovingly entered into a rattan-covered scrapbook
my mother bought for me at Aaron Brothers. My aunt must have been
snorting espresso the entire trip because cards arrived every two
or three days. Her handwriting was bubbly to the extreme and hard
to read, though I eventually memorized what was written on the cards
with some help from Mom. Reading them over and over before bed made
for epic dreams. The one with a picture of Lake Zurich on it was
You would love the lake here. We took a ferry across. I could see
the Alps. Me & Shelly got stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel.
She threw up over the side & it landed on a Swiss man. When
we got off the man chased us. We hid in a girls bathroom. Five of
us are sleeping in one room with a triple bunk & double bunk.
No one wants the third bunk. A pigeon came in the window. Camela
wrapped it in a towel & got rid of it. Rats with wings. I went
to a concert in the park of singers from Swaziland, Africa. I got
lost. Took a cab to the hostel. My friends called the police. I
went to a museum where you walk inside an exact replica of the human
up swings and freeze tag for a ten-pound Rand McNally, studied and
planned my own trips, and in the process became an expert on European
geography. Like many Americans before me -- Mark Twain, Henry James,
and Gertrude Stein to name but a few -- I became obsessed with that
faraway continent, the difference being that I'd only just learned
the alphabet. I don't know if it was the pictures of ancient ruins
calling out to one of my past lives, or the group shot of the Norwegian
men's Olympic swim team kindling something vague and still unknown
in me. All I know is that I had to get to Europe before kindergarten
or I'd just die. By the time my aunt returned home -- with a Joan
Jett haircut and bangles jangling from her wrists to her elbows
-- I had two scrapbooks packed with 141 postcards.
cute, so my parents tell me, when I entertained their dinner guests,
usually drab members of some local Republican club, with travel
tips for the French Riviera. I thought everyone was trying to get
to Europe and would appreciate my insider knowledge. One night I
hid in the kitchen and listened to the adults after one of my presentations.
I felt sick to my stomach when I heard a woman ask Mom, her tone
rather disgusted, "Do kids tease him?" My poor mother
hadn't a clue what this pucker-faced busybody was trying to intimate.
need to get him into football fast."
he's only four."
"There's a peewee league now. Look into it."
did, and soon I was in the unfortunate position of spending my weekends
as a running back. But only for a few years. At the age of seven
I was free to give up football for soccer. I had high hopes for
this European game, but quickly realized all team sports disagreed
with my personality.
or six years later, there was a picture of C. Thomas Howell from
The Outsiders on my bedroom door. Maps not just of Europe
but of all the continents and several countries were pinned to the
wall. Out-of-date Fodor's guides bought at garage sales lined the
bookshelves. Mom had caught the decorating bug, and after redoing
our house twice she confidently opened her own business. My brother
was six and a star hitter in T-ball. Aunt Kristen decided she didn't
like traveling after all, and that Europe was "dirty."
She went to nursing school, married a radiologist, and filled her
closet with Laura Ashley dresses. By this point I'd given up on
my parents taking me "overseas" anytime soon. Mom was
interested but Dad was decidedly against it. Maybe after he retired
the two of them would go. It looked like I'd have to do it on my
own like my aunt. In the meantime I did the next best thing: I planned
detailed trips right down to my airline seat (1A on Air France)
and the restaurants I'd eat at, such as Casa Botín in Madrid,
the oldest restaurant in Europe. I'd rent a barge on the Canal du
Nivernais, check out Pippi's Villa Villekulla in Vimmerby, Sweden,
or the Cosmic Club in Rimini, Italy, the hippest disco in the world.
why I felt so discontented in the San Gabriel Valley? Was it a result
of playing soccer and baseball back-to-back (I did manage to escape
football) since that shrew at the dinner party had enlightened Mom?
Sometimes it was fun, like the team pizza parties at Shakey's, but
mostly I played to please my family. Was I simply reacting to my
hum-drum environment? I was definitely fanciful, which resulted
in a few enemies at school. Namely Jason O. who liked to follow
me home throwing pebbles at my back. There were no bullies in Europe,
of that I was certain.
very close to my maternal grandparents who always encouraged my
curious nature. Around this time, when I was about ten, they went
on vacation to Hawaii. I hadn't given the fiftieth state a moment's
thought. But when they returned with pictures of tropical grottos,
Tiki villages, and pikaki-scented tales of nights spent dancing
to Don Ho's live rendition of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the
Ole Oak Tree," Hawaii became, for a while, my new number one
travel obsession. Imagining my grandparents there as I'd done with
my aunt in Europe, having a ball, basking in magic, was very powerful
for me. My parents were relieved that the Bulgarian Tourist Board
in Sophia stopped sending me suspicious looking manila envelopes
covered with stamps of Lenin and packed with unattractive holiday
brochures. Hawaii was part of America. My grandparents went there,
the neighbors went there, Elvis went there. It was healthy, normal,
that time, Tuesdays were the highlight of the week. My grandmother
would pick me up from school and off we'd go to Cost Plus or to
pick up a repaired vacuum. Back at the house, I'd work on elaborate
travel itineraries at the kitchen table while my grandmother cooked
dinner and asked pertinent questions. I loved being there. I always
felt like an adult.
such Tuesday, a couple weeks before the end of fifth grade and the
beginning of summer break, my grandfather Jack and I sat on the
edge of their pool with our legs dangling in. In hot weather we
always took a swim before dinner. He had his acoustic guitar. I
had the ukulele they brought me from the Islands. The three of us
ate Waldorf salad and brisket of beef outside under the citronella
tiki torches. After dinner, with their short-tempered Lhasa Apso,
Kashi, on a short leash, my grandfather and I walked to Thrifty
Drugs for an ice cream cone. Two scoops of Cinnamon Swirl for me,
two scoops of Mint Chip for him. We walked back listening to the
crickets and sprinklers. I don't know what came over me. "Pop,"
I said, "I thought of a way to get to Hawaii." He asked
how, and I told him flat out: "I'll take the money from my
think that's a good idea?" he asked.
favorite song came to mind, and I sang it: "Mele Kalikimaka
is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day. That's the
island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees
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