So I had to laugh the following summer when I returned home to Los Angeles, my dad offered me a shot of whiskey and my mom said, "Ben, don't teach him to drink." Parents are the bomb, aren't they?
I think of that every time I visit my mom in Los Angeles, as I did this week. Though alone now, she still rattles around the same rent-controlled, three-bedroom apartment to which we moved during my senior year of high school. It's a nice place that I actually discovered because I was a fat little boy.
My folks were looking to move to a bigger place. One Sunday morning I grabbed the keys so I could drive five blocks (shaddup!) to Winchell's donuts, even though I needed to stuff more fried sugar cakes into my maw as much as people in Barrow, Alaska, need sunscreen. I had to turn right onto Havenhurst Drive, and being a good little motorist I looked to my left for traffic and saw the for-rent sign.
My folks were not drinkers. Both of their fathers were a little too enamored with the drop and neither wanted to follow the same path. So I found it funny that after I moved away for good my parents bought one of those standalone bars with two stools and storage shelves behind for all the bottles they received as gifts and never opened. They stuck it right in my old room. I'm pretty sure there used to be a "Dogs Playing Poker" painting behind the bar. Maybe my mom sent it to Sotheby's for appraisal.
Visiting my old room reminds me of how close I came to moving back home after college. I had a political science degree, which oddly enough opened few doors to $100,000-a-year jobs. I had no job lined up aside from the few dollars I earned covering Berkeley City Hall for the Daily Cal. Days before I was to load my worldly possessions into my orange Datsun B-210 for the drive down I-5, I got a tip that the Chronicle needed a Berkeley stringer. I phoned the editor in charge and he hired me over the phone. I'd get a $200 monthly retainer plus a few bucks for each story that got published, and let me tell you, when you get paid by the piece you become a real noodnik ("Hey, editor, two garbage cans near Wheeler Hall went up in flames. You want 500 words?"). Good thing there was no caller ID back then or he'd have blackballed my number.
So I stayed in Berkeley, renting a place with my buddies Steve and Gene above a Chinese restaurant on San Pablo Avenue. For half a year, I subsisted on Daily Cal and Chronicle stringer money and even managed to save a few bucks. I used those clips to get a sort of internship in Sacramento, which helped me land a job at a weekly paper in the Central Valley and so on and so on to my current gig covering the Giants at the Chronicle.
The decision I made that June day in 1981, to stay in Northern California despite the fear of being broke and no mom-and-dad cushion (and nobody to teach me to drink), proved to be an even bigger cornerstone in my life than I would have imagined. Because I managed to keep myself clothed and swimming in glazed donuts, I learned that it's OK to take risks.
How different my life would have been had I returned to Los Angeles. Dad would have turned me into a full-fledged alkie and the 'rents would have persuaded me to give up this ridiculous notion of writing for a living.
Being Jewish in Los Angeles is akin to being in the Mafia in New York. Whenever I needed something -- a suit, a bike -- my dad would say, "Don't go to the store. I know a guy..." I'm sure one of those "guys" would have employed me in a respectable trade. At this moment, I could be the top-selling wall-to-wall carpet salesman in the West San Fernando Valley territory.
Nothing wrong with that. You can't cut a mean rug on the dance floor without the rug. And I'll bet I'd be happy, too, because I'd be so close to family and not even realize how much of a dump Los Angeles really is.
The moral: Don't be afraid of the dark. Take a chance. Follow Robert Frost's advice and choose the road not taken.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go teach a couple of baseball writers to drink.