Visiting home I spend my time driving familiar streets, tracing routes I once took, staring at the rows of houses as I pass, palm trees lining the sidewalk, pawn shops on corners, the yellow-painted Mexican restaurants…
I drive and I leave the radio off and I try to remember.
This is all a trick or a technique, a way to feel something so I can write about it later.
At the house I grew up in, and where my parents still live, I am incapable of remembering anything. I’m a kid again, without responsibilities. I can’t find that bright flash of memory and the feeling it takes to start writing.
I drive through Golden Hill’s sunny streets and I look at the two apartments I lived in and I drive past the Locust House and the Turf Club and Humberto’s and for the briefest moment I can see Agnes McCanty standing outside the laundromat with Gabby Martinez sharing a cigarette or Joey Carr walking out of the Broadway 7-Eleven with a tub of nachos in his hands and for the briefest moment I feel something, but then that feeling is gone.
I can only write about my hometown (my former hometown) when I am away from it. When I am away, when I am where I live now, I see it clearly. I hear the sound of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds rustling the palm fronds. I smell the sea at the end of P.B. Drive and rotting kelp at the Point and food cooking in taco shops. I recall conversations like they are happening in the same room as me. When I am away San Diego is there with me. On visits home it is unreachable.
On visits home, I drive around Hillcrest thinking about the Crypt and the Claw and Julia, Chente, and Lacey. I drive down 30th from North Park to Barrio Logan and I remember my dad’s warehouse and the doberman puppies kept in the chainlink lot with their cut and bandaged ears that once made me so sad, and I feel nothing.
I go down to Chicano Park and walk to the harbor and stand on the docks and smell the hot tar and the green baywaters and feel the sun on my face. I walk down Mission Blvd and I think of Agnes at Steven Boone’s Halloween store and walk past Zanzibar Court and think of Richard the Famous Bike Jumper and Andy Merko, and nothing, nothing, nothing…
On a calm, overcast Sunday I drive to O.B., park in the lot between Dog Beach and the pier, and walk the back streets in an attempt to remember whatever it is I have forgotten and will need to find again in order to write about my hometown. I walk past ratty beach apartments with sour grass in yards and I walk down Newport past the crowds outside bars and I go inside stores and look at shit I don’t want. When the sun sets I climb out on the rocky shore and watch it next to dozens of people filming it with their phones.
Without searching for the things I need to be able to write, I can enjoy my hometown. I can visit friends and go out at night and raise hell like an idiot and stop in at new taco shops and visit the great bookstore that is there now and wasn’t before. By living in the present I can have a lovely day. I can’t write, but I can see what I once loved about this place and what I still love (and love enough to keep coming back). This is how I should spend all of my time here because there are good friends to see and cool shit to do, but like a chump I get stuck trying to write. This is a problem I have and I know it is a problem I will never shake. Just live. Embrace the world around you because it is a wonderful place. I can sometimes. Most often I cannot.
This is February of 2020. Right before the pandemic. I’m here on a short book tour. Whenever I give up and enjoy the moment I’m as happy as you can be. When I try to write or think about what to write, I feel numb, disassociated, desensitized.
On the night before my flight home, I leave my parents’ house after midnight and walk down to the boardwalk and sit on the seawall at the foot of Reed under a street lamp with my notebook and I try to think and remember and write but nothing comes. After a half-hour some redheaded college bro as big and tall as a grizzly bear walks down the boardwalk toward me in his cargo shorts and baggy t-shirt and flipflops and I just fucking know he’s going to sit next to me on the seawall even though it’s 1am and we are the only people here.
“Hey, bro, what are you doing?” Grizzly Bro’s pupils take up most of his eyes. He’s grinning a sort of open-mouthed sneer and nodding his head to music I don’t hear. That’s when I realize he is high as FUCK.
I shrug and shake my head and hope my reluctance to engage drives him away.
“Can I sit here?”
“Hey, y’know, I’d rather do this alone, so…”
“Bro, do what?” He sits right next to me, just inches away, and instantly I feel unsafe.
In contrast to guys like this, I’m on the feminine side. I’m small, slim. I have longer hair than most men my age and I’m wearing a tight leather jacket, tighter black jeans, and fake Doc’s.
“I’ve got something I need to do,” I tell him, keeping it vague.
“Naaah, I’ll just sit here,” says Grizzly Bro. “What are you writing?”
“Nothing. I’m not. Look, man, I want to be alone, okay? Just … just … go somewhere else.”
“You’re writing poems. I get it. Man, I get it. The moon and the beach at night.” He takes out a Juul and sucks deeply on it.
When he exhales it smells like blueberry muffins.
“Nope. Not writing poems. Can we just–”
“Nigga, I’d be writin’ about fucking some bitches,” he says, and in that moment I’m sure he’s going to put his hand up for a high-five and the thought of it fills me with dread. “I’d write about fucking all the bitches I ever fucked. Like Bukowski, man, fuckin’ a million bitches every day. Bukowski was a PIMP.”
“I’m writing a letter.” This is a lie but maybe it’s not much of a lie at all. What I’m writing, or what I am trying to write, could be seen as a letter but it’s the kind you only think about and never send.
“Who’s the letter to? They made us write letters in high school. I’s like, FOOL, I ain’t writing no faggoty-ass letter. I’s like, I’ll write a letter to my DICK and be like, Somebody come over and SUCK this thing! Hahaha.”
“Really. Like … I need … I need to do this on my own.”
“Bro, it’s cool. I’ll just sit here and be quiet. You do your thang. Write them poems, my nigga. Write about fuckin’ some bitches.”
Behind us it’s the sound of a whining motor, then a tall, skinny guy with blonde dreads shoots past riding an electric skateboard.
He’s going very fast and soon he’s just a small beige dot between us and the dark line of Crystal Pier.
“Bro, did I actually see that or was that fake?”
I stand back up from the seawall. “Look, how ’bout you go your way–” I point north toward the pier “–and I go mine,” I say, nodding my head to the south, toward Belmont Park.
I don’t feel safe around large, young, white college men like this one. There is a chaos, brutality, and unpredictability in them that unnerves me, that makes me feel as if I am prey. They are quick to aggression and they feel righteous in making that leap.
“A’ight, my nigga, have a good night. Great talkin’ to you, bro.”
He’s either very bad at sarcasm or he truly means it. I can’t tell.
I walk away as he is saying this and I don’t turn to look back.
Of course I have forgotten or perhaps neglected the universal and unimpeachable truth that if certain people see you writing something in public they will not leave you alone. You have made yourself an “other” of some sort and because of that you become irresistible. They have to know what you are doing. You are a magnet. A curiosity.
Unless I am with friends, there is an anonymity I want when I return home and what I get in situations like this is the opposite of that. It’s not that they know who I am but rather that they sense in me some difference and they gravitate toward that difference because it is a thing that they do not like and want to disrupt. The tendency toward wanting to smash foreign things runs deep in the veins of humanity. It’s buried in our DNA. You can’t escape it.
I walk south down the boardwalk, the dark sea to my right, the streetlight-lit apartments to my left. This is my home and I am nowhere near it.
–Adam Gnade, author of the novella Locust House and the novels This is the End of Something But It’s Not the End of You and Float Me Away, Floodwaters. Available from Three One G.