On Bullies and Hookers… It gets better.

Interested in everything!

As a child… I was awkward in my skin. I was tall and skinny and my imagination was rampant. I dug through bins at the Goodwill with my mother and came up with wild costumes and eccentric devises that filled my closet and fed my dreams. There were antique Swallow Tail coats and collapsible silk top hats, there were military uniforms and priest frock coats, there were ancient kid skin gloves that would only fit a child and strange black pointed shoes that might have belonged to a mysterious prince.

I was a dreamer and a romantic. I would look out my bedroom window into the trees and be caught for hours by the faces and stories I would find in the patterns and shadows of the leaves; clouds were like a running series of spectacles and the deer paths and quiet shade of the woods lured as if I had been an elf in a past life. I was sure I was an alien and sometimes on clear starry nights I would go up on the hill near my parent’s house and wait for my real family to come and take me back, although in retrospect, my own family was just as wonderful and strange and alien as I could have hoped.

Needless to say, I was lonely. There was a tall dark tunnel that channeled our little creek under the road at the bottom of my parent’s property. As far as I was concerned, it was a kind of magical portal from one imaginary wooded world into another. It was cool and long and dark, filled with an echoing rush of fast cold water where the creek squeezed down to a fifth its size. I would build rock altars over the running water and decorate them with candles and incense, and then I would sit cross-legged in the cave like a naïve shaman and sing and chant along with the voice of the water and the dark. I suppose I should also mention that along with being tall and gangly, I wore thick horned rim glasses and carried books with me everywhere I went.

Cowell College

My father was the Provost at Cowell College on the University of California Santa Cruz and during the school year we lived there on campus, perched on a hill overlooking the athletic fields and with an extraordinary view of the Monterey Bay. I had discovered that many of the roofs at Cowell College were connected and made a kind of maze that ran from Cowell over to Stevenson College. My mother had made me a long black cape with red satin lining and at night I would swoop across the roofs like a shadow watching the college students and creating wild stories in my head.

Sometimes, I would make my face up like a horrible vampire and would appear in the darkness over the students like a bespectacled apparition, creating all kinds of havoc and confusion. Once, I took some old clothes and stitched them together into a haphazard scarecrow and when I saw a group of students wandering by, I would throw it from the rooftops. One day while I was dipping my homemade mannequin into the College fountain, professor Diezekes happened by and asked me what I was doing… I looked up and said, “I’m drowning the student body.”

All of this was tolerated and even to some extent encouraged when I was on campus. The students may have found me irritating, but they also talked to me like a human being, and found my over active imagination at least nominally entertaining. I loved and admired them and they gave me a safe space to explore my odd place in the world… and they were patient with me… I gave them exploding cigarettes, I dropped water balloons on them, I belabored them with magic tricks, and sprung out at them from behind doors. I suppose my parents were my parents, but the students were my extended family.

Obviously, things were not as easy in public school. I loved English and creative writing classes, but I hated math, and Physical Education was the worst form of torture. I was tall, I felt like my hands were where my wrists were. When I ran, I think I resembled a marionette with tangled strings, but worse, I was used to talking to adults who treated me as an equal. I wore tie dye clothes and my hair was long, I had a big nose (still do), I wanted to talk about black magic and stars, and I liked to recite poetry. So of course I got picked on, and I don’t mean, just being teased, but I got knocked down and had dirt put down my shirt. I got forced to my knees and spit on by groups of boys… always groups.

I suppose they figured out early that it was best to approach me in a group. Every once in a while, some bully would run into me without the pack and I could be unpredictable. A boy named George cornered me on a remote path near the campus once and I kicked him in the balls. The Haitian kid caught me alone in the halls of Mission Hill Junior High School and knocked the books out of my hands. I hit him so hard, I almost broke my hand, but those moments were rare. Bullies like the pack. They like the circling and being able to hit you while you’re watching someone else. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it hurt.

When I read recently about the republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and how he had led a group in cutting a young student’s hair, it made me once again, sick with anger. I can only hope, from the bottom of my heart, that in some small way, the pain he caused that poor young man helps snatch away the one most important prize in his career.

Our Lady of Santa Cruz… Mom

When I would come home from these devastating events, so angry and upset that I could barely talk, my Sainted Mother would always tell me the same thing. She would say, “Those people are nothing. This is the pinnacle of their lives. They will never have an original thought or know what happiness is all about. You’re going to go on and have a wonderful life, this is the best it’s ever going to be for them.”

At the time, it did not help much. I dreaded school so much it was like a wall of suffocating sickness that rose up around me and that I can still feel it sometimes, like a little web of scar tissue that wraps around my heart. It makes me good with some of the young suicidal patients that come to our hospital. I can sit at their bedside and tell them, with all honesty, that it gets better. That it makes them more compassionate and that it makes them want to fight for the underdog, but still, there’s no way around it, it hurt and no child should ever have to go through it.

Well, it was true, what my mother said. I’m 57 and I’ve had the most interesting life. I’ve traveled and I’ve met extraordinary people. I’ve done art, and been tattooed, and fallen in love, and I don’t drink, and I’ve traveled, and, and, and… Mostly it’s been interesting and fun, and exciting and I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.

Living in Japan

I lived in Japan for 6 years in the late 80’s to early 90’s, teaching English, making masks, and writing for the English editions of the Japanese newspapers. Every year I would come home to visit, get a new round trip ticket, and renew my travel visa. Sometimes being back in the states was almost as much of a culture shock as living in the land of the rising mists. I would have to learn to drive on the right side of the road again, get used to understanding the conversations of strangers, catch up on politics, and try to track down various friends who had moved, died, gotten married, become gay, or whatever other news might have come up during my absence.

One year during my vacation, I was driving up the coast road to my parent’s house when I saw a hitchhiker standing at the edge of town. In those days, I picked up hitchhikers on Highway One. Things weren’t as dangerous then and after being away for so long, I was hungry to talk to people about the town, their lives, the country. As I pulled over to pick him up, I realized it was Jerry Whiteson, the kid who lived just down the road from my parent’s house in Bonny Doon and had always been one of the pack of bullies that had so often tortured me. He hadn’t been the one of the leaders, just one of the snarling, nasty, group that could never leave me alone.

As I recognized him there, in dirty blue jeans with a ratty old backpack, I had this temptation to run over him, just swerve the wheel a little and flatten him in the dry brown dirt, but I didn’t… I picked him up, and to my surprise he remembered me and boy did he remember. He remembered what great friends we were. He remembered how wonderful those years were and how much fun we all had together.

“Those were such great days!” He said. “Life was so wonderful then…”

Evidently, life was not so great anymore. Jerry was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He had lost his job, his wife had left him, his children were off limits. He was moving north to try and find work. And I’m saying to him… “Gosh, I’m so sorry. That’s too bad. How awful!” but inside there’s this big grin trying to get out, and I’m thinking, “Amazing! My mother was right!” So I drive Jerry about 10 miles up the coast to where the road branches off to my parent’s house and I leave him out there, miles from anywhere, and I wish him the best of luck, which I actually mean, because, it’s not about him personally anymore. Jerry has now become a metaphor, and kind of a tired and beat up looking one at that, and I can hardly wait to get to my parent’s house so I can tell mother that she was right, as she almost always was.

Picked up all kinds of people

The other part of the story comes after I returned from Japan and was driving cab for a while around the crazy streets of Santa Cruz. I had gotten a call to go to the Motel Santa Cruz at Ocean and Broadway. The customer’s instructions were that she was in room 230, but to wait in the parking lot and not come to the door.

Of course I start the meter once I arrive, but it runs slowly when you’re not moving and after sitting there for about 10 minutes, I start to get impatient. It’s Friday night and every minute I sit there in that parking lot behind that cheap motel I’m losing money, so I finally go to room 230 and I knock on the door, which it turns out is not completely latched. Well, the doors swings open and I’m met with a sight straight out of a low budget porn movie.

There, on a rumpled bed with cheap flowered bedspreads and not too clean sheets is a chunky black prostitute and two big black dudes, right in the middle of unmentionable acts. Next to the bed, hopping on one foot while trying to get into tight white, scuffed high heel shoes is another skanky looking hooker with frizzy red hair and a hard lined face.

She lays right into me, “I said not to come to the door!” She’s grabbing her bag and heading into the hallway. I reply, “It was either come to the door or leave you here. You’re 10 minutes late. If I’m not moving, I’m not making money.” She’s mad, she’s rude, and she’s obviously not having the best of nights… So we’re driving along and she’s still grousing about me coming to the door and how messed up the night is, although she uses more colorful language.

All this time, I’m glancing at her out of the corner of my eye, she insisted on sitting up front. The beautiful Santa Cruz night slips by outside the cab like a river sliding by on a moonlit plain… and I ask her suddenly… “Did you go to Santa Cruz High?” There is a moment of stillness in the cab and she turns to me with a stricken look. “Why do you want to know?” she asks. “Is your name Cheryl?” I say.

So, yes, she did go to Santa Cruz High, and yes, she was part of the stuck up “in” crowd… and yes she was mean, and yes, now she’s a cheap whore working the Ocean Street route and turning tricks out of the Santa Cruz Motel, and suddenly butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Do you remember?” She says. “Weren’t we great friends? Weren’t those wonderful times?” I allow as how those weren’t exactly the happiest times of my life and how things are so much better now. I tell her about traveling and living abroad and getting married, and how full of friends my world is…

I suppose I should have felt grief for her. I should have sorrowed at the pain and suffering in the world and now, thinking back about it with more perspective I can feel some of that. I can forgive her and truly wish her well. She paid the price, but at the time, I dropped her off in the flats and hit the streets like a Mardi Gras parade! Yes! Mother was right! Yes! It felt good to be interested in and in love with the world! And most important, yes, it does get better, and yes mothers can be wise and knowing even if we don’t know it at the time.

Every chance I get, when we get kids at the hospital who are different, too effeminate, too smart, too awkward, or just too imaginative, I stop and I tell them, “Those people aren’t important. This is the top of their world. It gets better. You are going to go on and have a wonderful life.” And I mean it.

A wonderful life.

11 Responses to “On Bullies and Hookers… It gets better.”
  1. Wonderfully written and a beautiful sentiment.

  2. Thank y ou michelle! I’ll bet you were one of the nice ones!

  3. asmohr says:

    Your father was a “Rumpole of the Bailey” fan, right?

  4. Shae says:

    This one brought tears of recognition to my eyes – and memories of an awkward girl who lived in her own world of art and puppets & dreams… Thank you so much for sharing your wonder-filled stories with us.

  5. It does get better, doesn’t it?

  6. Howard Patterson says:

    I don’t want to use your name in this forum, but I believe I know you – it’s hard to imagine the details fitting anybody else. Your story is wonderful, and I’m glad to have run randomly into it. I’m glad you’re doing well. We’re the same age – I went off to do the Karamazov thing, after 34 years got very tired of it, got a Masters in Environmental Management, and am now unemployed in Portland and working on my memoir. Congratulations on it having gotten so much better!

    • Hello Howard! It’s so nice to hear from you! How wonderful that you have stumbled on my humble blog, amazing too! I think of you often and have wondered whatever happened to the Brothers. I would love to meet you for dinner or lunch sometime.

      • Howard Patterson says:

        That would be lovely. The Karamazovs are still out there – my replacement trained for it half his life, basically… We are apparently in similar necks of the woods, yes? I’m in NE Portland. Shall we continue our chat outside of this forum? You have my email…

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