Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Cold-Blooded Old Times

Four stories — each tangentially, sequentially related — that wrote themselves in the space of today, plus some thoughts on Round Table Pizza.
[ one ]
While discussing a certain family my grandmother doesn’t like, she mentioned that they had established their wealth initially by owning a “house of ill repute” — polite grandma talk for “whorehouse.” When I worked at the local newspaper doing the blotter, I remember seeing a woman who had been arrested for prostitution, but I guess I had never really thought about their being an actual whorehouse in Hollister.

According to my grandma, the house was a conspicuously long house, as if it had several different rooms connected by a hallway. Old timey whorehouses share this architectural feature, she said. In any case, the Long House, as it came to be called, used to be on a lot behind the local pharmacy. Given the house’s reputation, however, the local government decided to move the house a few blocks off San Benito Street and onto Prune Street, where it sits now.

“Could you point it out for me?”

Our afternoon schedules being relatively free, I took my grandma in the Stang to the corner of Prune Street, where she pointed out the Long House. Just like she said, it was unusually long. To my knowledge, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to a whorehouse — and I went with my grandma.

Later, on the way back, she said that prostitution wasn’t as unusual or as illegal or as taboo as it is today. Belying the wrinkles on her face and the political disposition one would expect from a woman who’s lived more than eighty years in the dusty agricultural town Hollister, my grandma said, “You know, it seems to me that if prostitution was legal there’d be a lot less rape.”

Sometimes I think I learn more when I stay home from school.
[ two ]
a brief bit of exposition before the main attraction: before i attended the local high school, i went to an all-guys catholic school forty-five minutes out of town. me and another guy from my graduating eight grade class were the only two guys from hollister to go, and though he and i had been friends since kindergarten, it became painfully clear within the first week of school that he no longer wanted to be friends with me. in retrospect, i can’t blame him, but i resented him at the time. the rest of my stint at this school, this atmosphere of simmering homoeroticism, i was vapor — quite literally a human cloud of nonexistence that could, would and did blow away with the slightest breeze.

After the unexpected sightseeing tour, I went to Target, mostly to escape the heat — the early onset of Hollister’s early autumn scorch. This is a big deal for me. Since Target is Hollister’s de facto community center, it’s nearly certain that shopping there means seeing people you know. Surprising no one, I saw someone I know — a guy, for the purposes of this story, that I’ll call Bingo.

Bingo was shopping with his mom. And Bingo didn’t see me — I made sure of that.

You see, right before I transferred to the local high school, my family saw his family at Round Table. Bingo and I had gone to the same Catholic elementary school, kindergarten through eighth. I mentioned I was transferring. The day before school, Bingo called me and offered me to show me around campus and whatnot. I already had a good network of friends waiting, but — what the hell — I said sure.

As the first week of school went on, I realized Bingo didn’t have any friends, nor did he understand enough of the workings of campus to be offering his services as a tour guide. Eventually — I’m not sure exactly when — I stopped hanging out with him. I ditched Bingo and never spoke to him again, save a few awkward chance bump-intos between classes. I justified the act by quickly replacing Bingo the Clingo with an emotionally needy girlfriend — plus the fact that Bingo was odd, quiet and, in retrospect, fairly gay. No more than a year after I had been friend-dumped, I had friend-dumped a guy who probably really needed a friend.

Now, I rarely see Bingo, and when I do, a massive wave of guilt usually prompts me to duck and hide. However, I do see the guy from the prologue, from the first high school — who, for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Irving. I duck him, too. Until today, I thought I did that because I was still mad at Irving. I’m not. Eight years come and gone, I could care less about how people treated me as a freshman in high school.

I know I avoid Bingo because I feel guilty. Today, I realized I avoid Irving not because I’m mad about what happened eight years ago, but because my last impression of him was a status-climbing friend-ditcher and that impression looks like me.

[ three ]
When I notified the main office of my first high school that I would not be attending the following year, the nice office lady suggested that I had to talk to my grade’s counselor about why I was leaving before I left.

I walked into Miz Drew’s office expecting a quick meeting: “I hate it here. You all suck. Go to hell.”

But when I told her that I just wasn’t happy, she asked me to explain. So I explained. I explained the whole human vapor thing. I explained having to wake up at six-ay-em in order to catch the bus to Salinas. I explained my general dissatisfaction with the school, from the shabby, diocese-funded appearance to the questionable quality of some of my teachers. But mostly, I elaborated on how inconsequential the other students made me feel. They didn’t even bother to make me feel unwanted; they made me feel invisible.

I told Miz Drew that there were some good teachers at the school and it could be give a student a valuable education — a good springboard into college that they might miss at public school — but he shouldn’t have to endure the lowly status of human vapor and they should have to place academics above their emotional health.

Now, Miz Drew didn’t look like a Catholic high school guidance counselor. She was tall and she dressed in heels and short skirts and she even looked like the kind of woman who might have been pretty, circa World War II or Prohibition or some such bygone era. But time struck Miz Drew like a falling anvil and she showed her age. Her makeup was always askew, like she had applied it in the car on a bumpy road in a hail storm, and she seemed just a little out of it, in a drug-induced haze sort of way.

“Drew,” Miz Drew told me, “you’re very mature for your age.”

And with that, basically, the meeting ended. A week later, I was sitting in my Old Testament class. Knowing me, I was probably reading the part in the Bible where Jael nails Sisera’s head into the ground with a tent peg — a personal favorite — or some other such scene of murder or rape or mass rape. The teacher, a man whose last name’s visual — but not phonetic — resemblence to the word “booger” earned him that as a nickname, told the class that before class got out, he’d like to address a certain pressing issue.

The school, Booger said, was a good school, but since it was “deprived of the mellowing influence of women,” it and schools like it had a tense social atmosphere. Booger went on to explain that teasing is a large part of male interaction, and though it can be painful at times, it’s a part of growing up. He explained that, as miserable as social interaction at this high school might be, a student who truly cared about his academic future would bear with the teasing and continue — essentially, forfeiting his happiness for the edge only the Christian Brothers of Ireland could provide.

I never really put it together, but today I wondered if Miz Drew had spoken to Booger and prompted his lecture on the character-building virtues of Yorkie Bar Catholic education. If it had, Booger had missed the point. Teasing wasn’t my problem. Invisibility was.

Or maybe the two events happened completely independent of each other. In that case, Booger’s lecture was a standard issue tough-it-out speech that he probably gave to ever Old Testament class, every year.

I think I’m glad I transferred.
[ four ]
Today my mom casually mentioned that she had only taught at this Catholic school in Fresno for a year. I asked why.

According to my mom, the school she taught at was a lot like the school I transferred out of: populated and controlled by the wealthy families of local agricultural tycoons, all just two or three generations removed from being Italian, Mexican or Irish immigrants. My mom gave one such kid a D on his report card. According to her, he deserved an F but she felt bad and bumped it up a notch. Mr. and Mrs. Row Crop, however, marched into the principal’s office and demanded the grade be changed.

The principal, a nun named Sister David whom my mom has mentioned a few times before and who, in my mind, looks like an aging Indigo Girl in the midst of roid rage, asked my mom to rethink the grade. My mom refused. Sister David threatened to fire my mom if the D didn’t transform into something more parent-friendly.

The D remained on little Billy’s record. And that’s why my mom transferred to a different school.
and [ five ]
The d├ęcor of the Round Table Pizza chain of pizzerias baffles me. What maniac decided to open a pizza restaurant and then theme the entire place with cartoon versions of characters from ancient English lore — characters who, if they ever saw a pizza wouldn’t have known what to do with it and probably would have accused it of witchcraft and dunked it in the river? I guess it’s no stranger than any other pizzeria’s theme — Mountain Mike’s, Strawhat, Chuck E. Cheese’s — but I just find a small amount of humor in the act of going to the register and ordering the King Arthur special with two trips to the Queen Guenivere Salad Bar and an order of Merlin’s Magic Buffalo Wings.

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