…for dinner led me down the path of memory. I stopped just off the freeway and ordered food to go, and while I sat and waited, the waiter brought me a steaming porcelain cup of green tea. It was too hot to hold with my bare hand, so I pulled my sleeve over my hand and held the tiny cup in the mitts of my own clothing to drink. It didn’t take long for my food to arrive.
When I grew up in Penngrove, there were no Chinese restaurants; there were no Chinese, either. There was one Japanese-American family and no one else of color I can recall. That was how integrated and diverse Penngrove was. When I got to high school in Petaluma, the largest recognizable ethnic group besides the white Americans was the exchange students. Yes, Hans and Michael and Yosef stood out like sore thumbs in their lederhosen and clogs. We broke the white kids down into groups — the Italian kids, the Irish, the Germans, and the few outsiders, spit on and tormented in the hallways, who were punk rockers (it was late 1970s). And there were a few who, inexplicably, wanted to be low-riders; we called them the wannabes and skirted them in the hallways, clearly confused by their seemingly random choice of identity. There were a few boys who were called fairies who ended up embracing their orientation (amazing that they turned out so well despite the torment of the masses), and there was one guy who took his Bible everywhere in a leather zipped case and preached to us at lunch. I’m sure by now he has a lovely wife and a bunch of kids and he surfs the Internet to look at gay porn after the wife has gone to bed. Just guessing.
Moving back to Sonoma County, I find that it is not the sticks anymore, but it is still pretty white. In fact, it’s an awful lot like Marin County, and just about everyone I meet seems to have moved here from there. It used to be all dirty pickups with gunracks. Now it’s giant SUVs and megapickups with luxury cabs that seat six. An amazing number of Mercedes and Hummers in the school parking lot. Not like it used to be.
I don’t like all the development that has cropped up in the past 20 years, eating up the hayfields and pastureland. I compare it to Burnham Woods or the coming of the huorns, encroaching on the green fields. I used to be able to get from my boyfriend’s house in Petaluma to my parents’ place in 8 minutes at 10:55 p.m., just barely breaking curfew by driving about 90 up Old Redwood Highway. I remember when the Phoenix was a movie theater. I was here when they filmed “Heroes” with Sally Field and Henry Winkler at the old Greyhound station, which is no longer that but I think a mailbox place now – 4th and C Streets? I remember when the police station was a mortuary. When the outlet mall was a brown field. My brother used to slaughter cattle at the feedlot on Old Redwood Highway just as you head north from town. He’d come home with his clothes stained brown from blood, and tell us tales of how they used the cows’ tongues to clean the carcasses, and how they fooled the health inspectors.
The spring of my senior year I was a waitress at the Boulevard Bowl Coffee Shop, and my boyfriend was a champion bowler. I remember the night he bowled a 300 during league play and the American Bowling Congress sent him a diamond ring. Some nights we’d go to the empty trailer which was the band’s practice shed and I’d sit on a packing crate while they thrashed their way through sets of songs, each one nearly identical to the last. My ears would ring all the way home. Some nights we partied and I remember driving home out Ely, or maybe Adobe, which are so straight that they could have been laid out by Romans, and closing my eyes, long blinks during which I clearly dreamed, then opened again to find myself closer to home. The car seemed to know the way, and how to stay on the road.
Before that I worked at the deli near the little park between Western & Washington on the Boulevard – it was called Perry’s but is now something Italian (Domenico’s?). My dad was their bookkeeper back then. I remember the town before poor Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered, and watching the whole thing unfold on TV in San Leandro. My eldest daughter suffered horrible nightmares about it. I kept seeing familiar faces on TV when the volunteers and cops were interviewed.
I could go on. But it’s weird — I was drawn to Alameda by its familiarity — similarity to Petaluma. And now I’m back, and it is so different — and so much the same. I knew it like an intimate friend, and now I go back and find that a grocery store has become the school district headquarters, but some of the same teachers are still teaching at Penngrove Elementary School and at my high school a million years later. There’s Chinese food available down the street — and a Starbucks, an Applebee’s, a Burger King, a Subway. All the delights of any suburban strip mall.
Advice to aspiring writers: Never underestimate the power of memory.