Installment 8 of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
Monterey: A Nostalgia
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is not the only nostalgia on my agenda. I was a teenager when I lived in Monterey. My father was in the Navy, attending the Naval Postgraduate School, and we lived on base housing in the neighborhood of La Mesa, only minutes away from Cannery Row. On my way out from the area, I stop by the Postgraduate School and the beautiful boardwalk area across from it, and then head toward the Navy family community of La Mesa.
I’ve been back to Monterey before, a few years ago, but I was with a friend and did not want to bore them (as I now will you) with my childhood haunts. Today I am solo, and I want to see the places where I seem to remember becoming who I am. I start by tracking down my old home.
It is not here. The old dwellings have been demolished and new homes stand in their place. It seems the yards and plots are a bit skewed, but I am able to make out the tree my friends and I used to climb and dare each other to jump out of. I remember the combination of fear and exhilaration, jumping out of those high limbs, not sure whether one of our limbs would be broken or an injury sustained, landing safely and feeling an eruption of accomplishment with each jump. The juicy iceplant that used to cover the hill is gone, but the hill is still here, the brush where we used to hide, the road where my teenage friends and I would pull stupid stunts like laying in the middle of the road until a car came, jumping up and putting on as though we’d been startled awake, running into the woods before there was time for the driver to recognize or catch us.
My childhood friend’s house is still here. Bryan and I were the best of friends during those years in Monterey. After we both moved from the area, he visited one summer when I lived in Rhode Island. Later, when I lived in Virginia and he in DC, we visited often. We drifted apart over the decades, but are still in touch and have the sort of friendship that will have us best of friends again after a few hours of conversation. I wonder now, as I sit in the carport outside his old door: if I knock, will a 14 year old version of Bryan come out to play?
You can never really go back home. I learned that when I returned to Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia about ten years after my time there as a college student. Whether time changes people or people change the times, it’s never like it was when you return to a place that is defined by the people you know there.
The Community Center is still here. I enter the convenience store and find it’s much bigger than I remember it. In the past, I’ve found the opposite to be true: places I remember being beg as a child turn out to be small. The store clerk tells me that it was expanded not too long ago.
I’m surprised to see single malt scotch in the $20 range—the same I’d pay more than $40 for back in Baltimore—and I ask whether you need a military ID to buy from the store.
“Yes,” he answers, scratching his scruff-covered head. “You don’t have your ID?”
“I’m not military,” I explain, half expecting him to escort me out of the community. “I used to live here, almost 30 years ago.”
“Oh,” he says, at ease. “I bet it’s changed a lot.” He’s about my age, maybe a few years younger.
“Yes,” I say. “My friend’s place is still here, but my place was torn down.”
The store clerk laughs. “I know the feeling. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. There are areas I don’t even recognize anymore. The only way they still exist is because me and people I know reminisce about them. It’s like they’re gone forever. Once we’re gone, no one will ever know the places existed.”
Like Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia in 1994. Or Spruance Road in La Mesa in 1984. At least Cannery Row will be remembered in a novel, but even it is not what it was before. I suppose no where is.
Outside the convenience store, between it and the tailor, there is one thing that seems to never have changed: the old La Mesa Community Bulletin Board. I can’t believe it’s still here, or that I remember it so clearly. When I lived here in the 1980s, I used to mow lawns and babysit, and it was on this board that I thumb-tacked my advertisements, typed on a PC and printed in dot matrix. I even remember babysitting for one of our neighbors who was good friends with my father: Mike Mullen, who would decades later become the first Navy officer to serve the President as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I used to babysit his kids, watch TV in his living room, and sit at his dining room table with spiral notebooks and a pencil where I would write my early attempts at novels.
Now, remembering my very first marketing attempts, I put a new advertisement on the bulletin board in the same thumb-tacked spot as my old “Experienced Babysitter” ad. It is a postcard for Tracks: A Novel in Stories.
I drive slowly through the neighborhood, by the Navy Lodge and tennis courts, past the youth center where I used to spend Saturday nights watching movies, listening to music, playing games, and hanging out. I drive down the hill and look for children peeking out of the woods, ready for them to pull childish stunts, hoping for it. Moments later, I’m leaving La Mesa.
Up I drive, up hills, until I arrive at my next destination: Walter Colton Middle School. I have a mind to just skip this stop—what is there to see that I can’t see at my own daughter’s high school or son’s elementary school? But when I get out of my car and begin to roam, I come to understand that there is a lot to see.
I’m shocked at the memories that flood back into me as I walk around the campus—moments and people and places I haven’t recalled in decades. The cafeteria, where we used to avoid the giant ketchup tubs because the bullies spit in them; the outside hill where we sometimes sat with our boxed lunches of hamburgers or pizza and fries; the student store where you could buy everything from pencils and book bags to trail mix and granola bars; the bus-loading area; the mural-covered cinder-block wall between the gym and classrooms, next to the cafeteria where fighters fought and readers hid their noses in comic books; the court where we used to run laps, chanting “almost there, almost there” as we approached our designated spot to spit on our target; the computer lab where two 13-year-old boys tried to convince us that they were working directly with George Lucas on the sequel to the recently released Return of the Jedi; the area in the middle of the stairs where we used to play dodge ball, now gone, an elevator in its place; the dumpster where we sometimes hung out, although can see why now because although we called the area “the dumpster,” it’s more defining characteristic is the big and beautiful willow tree shading the area; the courtyards between rows of classrooms, like zen gardens or rice paddies, filled with banzai-like trees and bushes and stones; the library, where I remember first discovering Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. I remember the green canvas backpack I slipped those library books into. And the classrooms themselves: The science lab, the foreign language classroom where I got a taste of Spanish, French, and German in one quarter; and Mr. Robinson’s classroom.
Mr. Robinson was my 6th grade English teacher. I remember clearly his compliments of my writing and encouragement to write a novel. One of the optional assignments was to write a novella of 50 pages. I turned in a 200 page novel, handwritten on notebook paper. I’d known I wanted to be a writer since I was in early grade school, but this was the first time I remember being seriously encouraged by a teacher, and the result was my first novel. A defining moment for me as a writer. And here I am now, peering into the empty classroom again.
And there is the tree, down the stairs from the dumpster area, where the bleachers used to be. It was there that I first remember thinking I was in love. I’d had girlfriends before, as early as Charlene in the first grade and as recent as Dori in my first half of 6th grade in South Carolina. But this was the first “real love.” I can picture her under this tree now, but I can’t even remember her name.
I remember the area in the outside hallways—sidewalks between courtyard gardens and classroom rows—where I met my friend, Bryan, and other friends like Wolf, Lemon, Lewis, Beagly—all with the same first name, thusly called by their last. Marching the halls, into and out of the library, talking about our futures and what we were going to make of ourselves. We were, after all, more or less adults, our 12- and 13-year-old selves agreed.
It’s summertime and school is out, but there are workers in the office. I think about going in and introducing myself. I could stay here longer, reminiscing. But I have an event tonight in Santa Barbara and not much time to spare. To be honest, I’m running late as it is. I take one last look around me—one last deep breath in and sigh out—and drive away from my past, back into the present.