Saturday, September 4, 2010

Celebrating life on the road not taken

My first real time away from home was my junior year at college. I went to Cal, where campus cops looked the other way at marijuana, dorm-room fridges were stocked with cheap beer and there was a 50-50 chance that any mushroom you consumed was not the kind you could procure at Berkeley Bowl.

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.


  1. Nice article Henry. You are doing an awesome job. You are a lucky man. I just started my own blog page about the Giants, Id appreciate any tips! Thanks man! This has been my passion since I could remember! Your living the dream of a lot of people out here!

  2. Henry:

    Wonderful post. I learned the same life lesson just four years before you did, albeit heading in the opposite direction. Leaving the Bay Area for LA wasn't easy, but sometimes you've just got to make a leap of faith and hope you can stick the landing.

    You're right though -- in so many ways, LA really is a dump. Although I managed to have a pretty good time over the past thirty+ years working in Hollywood, I still follow the Giants with the same passion as when I was a kid.

    Love your Chron coverage of my hometown team, and your blog. Thanks.

  3. Great post, keep them coming!

    So we could have rubbed elbows at Cal, I was going there around that time too. I loved going in to the donut shop, Northside (can't remember name, gone now), grab a apple turnover, then climb up the hill to the corner grocer (funny how they normally are, huh?) to grab me a Berkeley Farms chocolate milk (like half my nutrition while at UC), then find a bench somewhere around there and eat. Good times!

    I totally agree with taking the road not taken, you don't know what serendipity might bring you. I would have never met my wife, then not have the two great kids we had together.

    I would also add that it's OK to follow the beat of a different drummer (inscription to me in Thesaurus from my wise 12th grade teacher, Mrs. Holland). I think that is something you follow too.

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