What Lies Beyond Long Beach & 5th…
“Far away from the mangled and rusted remains of this Long Beach and 5th sign…I find myself on Google Street View virtually wandering the streets of places, once so clear and familiar to me, that now sit only as corroded and twisted versions of the past.”
Google Street View, intended by it’s creators to allow users to view panoramic images of streets, is used by many bleary-eyed nostalgics to revisit old places they once knew or to explore locations they’ve only dreamed of.
Whoever said time travel was not possible has never tried Google Street View. Many of us who have used its search engine to locate our own home address have been surprised to find an old tree on the front lawn that has long since been chopped down. We’ve seen the old station wagon in front of our grandparent’s home, from a time long before Gramps passed away and Nana moved to the nursing home. We’ve caught a blurry glimpse of a teetering toddler in the backyard – a distant memory of a child’s first steps – as they now dash past you to play outside with friends.
As I cleared my camera of old photos, I came across one of an old intersecting street sign. I found it at an antique shop. It was propped on a chair and seemed out of place…like it had been found but had not yet discovered it’s purpose. I snapped a quick photo for no particular reason other than the rust, the odd angle at which it was bent, and unfamiliar street names, appealed to me. I thought, perhaps, someday I’d come back to it.
And so it was, on a lazy day, with nothing specific in mind…no thoughts, no agenda, no plan as to where the day would take me – I found this photo.
You’d think my first instinct would be to Google the address, as I’ve never come across such an intersection nor known whether these streets exist perpendicular to each other. Instead, my thoughts brought be back to place of youthful curiosity.
I hastily punch in the name of the school where I attended Kindergarten. Instantly, I recognize a familiar symbol: A bee. Our school mascot.
I move the mouse around and recognize the entrance. It still looks the same, except for a fresh coat of paint. Having been a student there for 4 years, I was familiar with the building. The walkway behind my 1st grade classroom…where we’d eat watermelon slices on hot days and drop seeds on our honey yellow shirts. The front door of my 3rd grade art class…where a boy smacked the back of my skirt causing it to flit in the air before darting off behind a tree. My first “I think he likes you” moment which later turned into an “If you do that again, I will punch you” moment.
I type in the next address and zoom in on the solitary monkey bars propped on a slab of concrete so deteriorated that patches of grass had begun to peek through.
I’d only been at this school for half a year. Long enough to remember proudly gazing up at my drawing for the annual art contest. It hung near the entrance for all to see. The drawing was of a large caricature of a book reading a book. The caption read: “Reading is fun.” Simple yet solid, I thought. I won 3rd place.
I recall that just down the hall, we’d line up to use the bathroom after P.E. and we’d stand around all sweaty and out of breath chatting with our friends. I hated those first couple minutes when you’d rush in, face red from the beating sun, head throbbing from an hour of running around the track or playing dodge ball…those first few minutes back indoors, in the shade, felt euphoric. It was here, in one of those unassuming blissful moments, that my best friend Gloria shared that her mother had died and that she was being raised by her grandmother. None of us had ever known anyone whose mother had died. We didn’t know what to say or do and we all just sort of wished we were back outside with the sun in our eyes and breath taken out of us so that we’d have an excuse not to say anything. But we were only 9 years old. What could we even say that would make sense except…“Oh.”
But Gloria didn’t seem too affected by it, in fact, she welcomed the attention. A foot taller than the rest of us, she insisted she could talk to ghosts and, once in the bathroom, turned off the lights, stood in front of the mirror, and summoned “Bloody Mary” to prove it. She’d go on to encourage a bunch of us girls to circle around her with colored stones and repeat chants as she’d stand in a circle that she had drawn in the sand at recess. We’d laugh and play along for a while but she’d get mad when we told her we rather play Four Squares instead.
We’d soon hear she’d take a swipe at her wrists with something sharp in a bathtub. Someone they said was her grandmother was seen leaving the principal’s office only a few days before I was signed out once again for another transfer.
I’d have another chance at the rest of 4th grade at yet another school. I typed in the next one and don’t immediately recognize the facade of the building. I am; however, familiar with the many modular classroom pods that flank the rear of the main structure. I had classes in there that were often interrupted by health officials who would pop in once a week for “lice checks”. An epidemic of head lice had apparently broken out in such a dramatic fashion that, as the fabric-lined room divider walls that separated the classrooms within a pod, were hosed down with some sort of repellant, we’d all line up before nurses who wore plastic caps on their heads and gloves on their hands as they held disposable combs and fiddled through our manes. If you were pulled aside, you knew you would be out of school at least for a week. Thankfully, I’d only caught them once and my mother wasn’t fazed by the task of having to comb through, strand by stand to eliminate the tiny suckers, unlike some of the other children’s parents who had just as quickly shaved their heads and snipped their hair to unflattering lengths.
Just behind the pods, the field where I had reluctantly signed up for and played co-ed baseball, still stood. I remember the sting of the metal bat and the clanging and banging of the hard plastic helmet against my ears as I ran from first to second base. It seemed I’d always only make it that far. Once back in the dugout, which consisted only of us standing in the hot sun along the fence as we waiting for our next turn, we were consumed by rumors of the haunted house across the street.
Some had seen the bloody teddy bear on the front lawn with a note and a knife stabbed through it. Others would leave the field to try and sneak in through the secret underground tunnels that would lead to the maid’s quarters inside the house. A few has witnessed the man with the neon green eyes or headless chickens hanging from trees in the backyard. While we had all, at some point or another, stood frozen during practice whenever there was any movement in the driveway, because we heard that is where they would load up bodies into the black hearse that was often parked there. I had always blamed my poor batting skills on all the distractions in the dugout and my lack of attention in the outfield on my own hapless daydreams and wild imagination.
My hands were typing quickly and moving the mouse so frantically from side to side that it didn’t dawn on me until about the fourth address that I had moved often as a child. Well, of course, I knew that, but something about revisiting each place, in such rapid succession…something about seeing it all at once for what it was – a playback of sorts – seemed exhausting.
Instantly, I thought about my mother – the one whose tow I followed…
I thought about her reasons for making us move so often. I wondered if she ever gave thought as to how it would affect my siblings and I. Did she worry about whether we’d make any friends. If we’d pick up on the learning pace and follow each new teacher’s style. If we’d be bullied or whether we could even find our way around the halls. Would we be scared to walk home or worried we’d miss the bus? Every time she’d register us at a new school, did she second guess herself or was each new place validation that she had made the right move…that she was saving us?
For a while, I sit with those thoughts and decide to close the computer browser. I didn’t need to search any more.
In his novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, American Author, Reif Larsen, covers the life of 12 year old genius map maker T.S. Spivet as he attempts to understand the ways of the world, and writes: “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
In the end, we all turned out fine.
And my mother…she is a strong woman; a good mother.
That is what I think when I see Long Beach and 5th. I think about my mother.
So many reasons one could think about a person on any given day…
But it is only in the long roundabout journeys that nostalgia brings us on that we begin to piece together the threads of the quirky and seemingly unrelated events that make us who we are, bring us to where we are, and help us appreciate those who have been with us along the way.
Far away from the mangled and rusted remains of Long Beach and 5th…somehow, that is what lies beyond.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Old signs & fuzzy maps aside…I think of you today and always.