I Think It's Me
At eighteen, I worked at the Hilton Hotels Corporation, photocopying papers for eight hours a day. When I wasn't doing that, I was ordering toilet paper for hundreds of hotels. I was bored out of my mind. Making matters worse, I had the world's most hideous boss. He looked for reasons to call me into his office and chew me out. Most -people would've quit, but I didn't care. Besides needing the money, I knew I wasn't going to be there long. I was going to be a rock star.
I was absolutely certain of it.
I had always been like that: someone who dreamed big and believed those dreams could come true if I kept at them.
I probably inherited that from my mom. Raised in Hollywood, Joanne Thompson was the eldest of two children of Roy, a plant manager at the General Motors facility in Van Nuys, and Ruth, a homemaker whose head-turning beauty and dramatic flair had inspired her as a younger woman to pursue movie stardom. When those dreams didn't pan out, she turned into an obsessive fan who read all the gossip magazines and took her daughter to movie premieres where they ogled the stars walking the red carpet.
Like my grandmother, my mother was drop-dead gorgeous. Photos of her as a senior at Hollywood High show a redhead with a great figure and big, lively eyes. She was a knockout. I think she could have had a shot at a career in front of the camera if she'd had ambition in that direction. By her own admission, though, she was too naive and shortsighted. She didn't have a plan.
"I didn't think about what I wanted to do," my mother once told me when I asked how she had envisioned her life going after high school, adding that she saw herself as Debbie Reynolds and "thought everything would be, or should be, happy, happy, happy.
"Then I got married," she continued, "and I found reality."
Actually, she found Harold Carlisle, a James Dean look-alike whom she met while still a high school student. He was her dose of reality. He worked at a gas station near the school. Though he was twenty years older than her, she fell in love with him.
"I was so stupid," she told me. "He was a bum."
They married right after she graduated and on August 17, 1958, less than nine months after she accepted her diploma, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Belinda. C'est moi! I arrived in the world via special delivery, otherwise known as a C-section. According to my mom, I was too large for her to push out naturally. Apparently size was an issue for me from day one.
Two years later, my mom gave birth to a boy, Butch; and two years after him, she had my sister Hope.
Even now she doesn't talk much about those early years. From the little she has revealed, she was in over her head as both a wife and a new mother. She's described it as a time when she learned "the tricks of the trade." Translation: Barely out of her teens, she was juggling three small children in a cramped Hollywood apartment, making do without much money, and trying to figure out life with a much older man.
According to her, my father wasn't happy about having children. I can sort of understand his position as he was an older man who impregnated a high school girl, married her, and then found himself in a situation he may not have envisioned for himself. Why did two more children follow if he was against having a family? Good question. To this day, my mom is reluctant to speak about those early years. She has too many wounds that are still tender and raw.
When I was five and a half, we moved to Thousand Oaks, a fifty-mile drive northwest over the hills from our Hollywood apartment. It got us out of the city and into a fairly rural area with dairy farms and post-Korean War housing developments. Our neighborhood was the low end of working-class and we were among the poorest of the poor, though at my age I didn't know rich from poor.
We moved into a small, pink and brown 1950s tract home at the end of a cul-de-sac. The street was lined with trees; I thought it was beautiful. The backyard was a hardscrabble mix of grass and dirt with a cheap metal swing set lodged in the middle that was like an island of fun. The problem was getting to it. My dad had an extremely territorial pet rooster that roamed the yard with an ogre-like temper and threatened us kids whenever we went back there.
My dad had a similar temperament. He didn't threaten us, but he left no doubt that he ruled the roost. Even on good days, there was always an undercurrent of tension. I know my parents could barely afford the house, but that was only one of their problems. My mom didn't trust my dad, or his explosive temper. Sadly, I felt the same way after I was literally caught in the middle of one of their more physical arguments, with one of them pulling my legs and the other my arms until it seemed I might split into two pieces.
Our move into the Valley coincided with my dad working at the GM plant in Van Nuys, though he didn't last there long before he started a -carpet--cleaning business. I don't know whether he left or was laid off. I remember my mom hand-painting a logo on the side of his van. It was like the christening of an ocean liner because after that he spent most of the time on the road.
As part of the change, my mom sought comfort and companionship with the handsome carpenter who lived across the street, Walt Kurczeski. It turned out Walt had his own demons, but I didn't know about them then. At that point, he was my mother's special friend. Many years later, when I asked how their friendship had started, she said, "He was there when I needed him--with marriage or without."
All I knew was Walt was at our house whenever my dad wasn't there, which was more often than not. I didn't question the arrangement until one afternoon when I was waiting in front of my house to ride bikes with Eddie, a little Mexican boy who was one of my best friends. He walked up to me looking uncomfortable and announced that he couldn't ride bikes with me that day or any other day. When I asked why, he said his parents didn't want him to play with me anymore.
I didn't understand. We played together almost every day.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because my mom says your mother is bad."
My mother was bad? I didn't understand what he meant or why he said such a hurtful thing, and his words left me bleeding from a hundred little wounds. I held back tears as I raced home. I ran into the garage, sat on my bike, and cried while trying to figure out why my friend's mother would've said such a mean thing about my mom.
It didn't make sense. My mom was a sweet, shy, young woman. She wasn't bad, and she didn't have the capability of being mean. She fought with my father when he called from the road, but she sounded defensive and usually hung up feeling scared.
After a few minutes, I went inside and looked for my mom. She was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I stared at her through a film of tears in my red eyes. I lied and pretended nothing was wrong when she asked if I had been crying. I felt like I would hurt her if I told her that someone thought she was bad, and my instinct was to protect her.
She was twenty-five years old. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was wearing a cute dress that she had made herself, as she had most of her clothes, as well as my school outfits. None of that was bad. She liked to watch movies. She also sang around the house, played piano, and clapped when I danced for her. None of that was bad either.
At worst, she was troubled. But bad?
I could think of only one possibility for Eddie's words--Walt. He was at our house for dinner and often still there in the morning. He was more of a companion to my mom than my father was. I grew used to him being around without really thinking about why he was there. Of course, in retrospect I know why. My mom and dad had split. I don't know if they had officially separated or divorced, but they weren't together anymore.
My mom never mentioned it. Walt's presence was assumed. He continued to show up after we moved to Simi Valley, and then to a rental in Reseda, and yet again to an even smaller home in Burbank that was so close to the freeway that I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of cars speeding past. Even after the final move to Burbank, my mother, sister, and I continued to shuttle back and forth between my grandparents' home in Saugus and those of various friends of my mother.
Just as we were never given an explanation of Walt's presence, my brother, sister, and I were never told why we were constantly moved around. To this day, if I shut my eyes and think back to that time, I can feel the sense I had of being unsettled and uncertain and of wondering why we couldn't stay at home. It was confusing and chaotic. Maybe this moving around was why, years later, I took to the road so easily--it reminded me of this time in my life.
From the Hardcover edition.