When I was eight years old, my family moved into our first house in California. We had previously lived in apartments prior and getting to move into a house, albeit a rental, felt like we were on the road to the high life. The house was located in a lush and quiet neighborhood in the belly of a city called, Reseda. At that time it was mostly known for its robust gang and cockroach population, two things which my family embraced with open arms. Well, more specifically, the cockroaches took to our home like house guests overstaying their welcome and the gang members stole our belongings like house guests on the run.
But it didn’t matter to me and my sister who had never had a driveway to play in, or a dirt patch yard that we could call our own. We moved in early August and even though the temperature usually hovered around 100 degrees, we would run around the ditches and weed patches with reckless abandon.
A barren metal clothesline ran through the middle of the back yard which, with the help of the stench from the dog food factory nearby, gave it a post-war, industrial-like feel. My sister and I used to pretend we were personal spies for Rambo. Our job was to traverse along the wire, dangling high above the toxic wasteland of a small Eastern blocked nation that lay below us. I wanna say, Latvia? With steely resolve, we would carefully maneuver one hand at a time to get back to the safety of good ole’ American soil. (The late 80’s still carried the fear of Russians attacking us in the middle of a lazy Saturday afternoon.) But of course, we don’t need to worry about that now. Er, scratch that…
Inside the house our adventuring continued as we would run around like crazed animals, jockeying back and forth between our shared bedroom and the famous, “middle bedroom” which housed a black and white television and forty-two unpacked boxes. We’d hide behind the towers of boxes labeled, “stuff”, “stuff for middle bedroom”, and “more shit to unpack”. My family had a long history of “middle bedrooms” and while we always had the best intentions of what might happen there; guest visits, crafting adventures, seances, etc., they somehow never came to be fully realized. Instead, they became the room of unwanted responsibilities. Years of mismatched socks called the middle bedroom their home. Stolen wrenches, private legal contracts, and shamed indoor-pooping dogs also called it a hideout.
Our dogs, Thomas Jefferson, and Ernie (named after a respected president and pro wrestler) were the unsung heroes of the family. After having smuggled them in and out of apartment complexes like illegal reptiles, we finally moved to a place where they didn’t have to live in the shadows.
The house was lovely and our parents maintained a spotless home, even with red shag carpet abounding. However, the dead of summer, poorly designed door seals and a garbage dump for a neighborhood brought entire bug settlements into to our treasured new home. We’d find roaches in coffee cups, on pillows, and inside our shoes. The daily soundtrack in our household usually consisted of hearing a shriek, a crash, and any number of expletives.
While the cockroaches became homesteaders in our house, the dogs seemed to suffer a particular blight of their own, which was perpetual and total flea infestation. Even after having performed special flea baths as well as voodoo rituals on them, they still were covered in a body coat of tiny, ruthless invaders. Eventually, the itching got so bad they just scratched off all their fur, and what remained were two neurotic, mostly bald, dogs.
Despite all of it, in that blighted house, me, my sister, and our alopecian dogs frolicked day in and day out. I think though, the chaos of two young children, two hairless dogs, and nine thousand unwanted house guests eventually got to my parents and they decided to remove the most annoying of the visitors.
So one balmy day our mom walked into the middle bedroom where my sister and I were having a rousing game of “match the socks” to tell us she’d just registered us for a local summer day camp. She claimed they wanted us to meet more kids in the area, but I’m pretty sure it was because they wanted to go hang out at Tennis World, a nearby tennis club and spa, where both children and insects were strictly prohibited. My sister and I were thrilled with this news as it seemed like an even bigger upgrade than just getting to play inside the walls of our backyard cell block. Our dogs would be left to deal with the heat and bugs, but we were pretty sure they did better without us anyway. Ernie no longer had to worry I would try to French braid his hair when he slept and TJ could now watch soap operas all day without interruption.
My sister and I sat up late that night discussing what we thought we would get to do. Would there be campfires and horseback rides? Would we get a counselor who taught us how to make lanyards and discover which urban plants were edible?
The next morning our parents handed us each a backpack filled with a brown bag lunch, a thermos, sunblock with an SPF of 75, and although we weren’t sure what it was for- a sponge. We got picked up in an old Dodge minivan by a guy named Todd. He wore a tee-shirt that said, “If We All Had A Bong, We’d All Get Along”. Somehow this didn’t seem to concern my parents and off we went that Tuesday morning to either our summer camp adventure or our imminent abduction.
Along the route to the camp, our driver picked up three other kids from the neighborhood; a bossy nine-year-old named Veronica who kept telling Todd he drove like a grandma, a younger boy named Lyle who was sporting a wicked overbite and headgear to match, and a girl about my age named Sara who had equally as frizzy hair as I did. She carried a Wonder-Woman lunch box and smelled like strawberry lip balm. I thought she was beautiful and I wanted to become best friends with her immediately.
We didn’t talk much on the drive, but I did ask Sara if she liked to double dutch jump rope as I thought it might be a nice segue into becoming quick best friends in this strange new camp world.
After driving in half an hour of traffic we arrived at what looked like an abandoned vet clinic and/or mineshaft. Two giant stone doors opened to reveal an enclosed cement “play area”. This would end up being the location of eighty percent of our camp activities. City camp, it turns out is strikingly similar to waiting in line at the DMV. Everyone around you is stuck being there, so you inevitably bond, but no one really wants to be there longer than they absolutely have to.
Once we got off the van, my sister and I were immediately separated because of our age difference. She went off to play with, what I imagined were older, cooler, more well-adjusted kids, while I got placed with headgear boy, a girl having a tantrum who I’m pretty sure had just pooped her pants, and thankfully, Sarah. Sara seemed unusually calm during this initial separation and I can only attribute this to her constant and perpetual re-application of lip balm. (This habit impressed me so much, it left an indelible mark on me. To this day, when shit hits the fan, the first thing I do is pull out my chapstick. We are experiencing an earthquake? Hang on, lemme just put on some chapstick and then I will quickly remove that boulder from your living room. I’m about to win a Grammy? Hold up, lemme just re-apply real quick.)
The four of us new kids were then ushered to one corner of the playground and/or parking lot to a picnic table covered in arts and crafts. I use that term loosely, as it was a pile of newly used popsicle sticks and brown yarn. We were left to our own devices for the next hour to play to our heart’s content with these makeshift cat toys. While at the “crafting station” I learned that Sara’s favorite sandwich was tuna fish (one that had proven in the past to make me throw up on contact), she had a dog named Diarrhea (her little sister was tasked with naming the dog and this was the name she insisted on) and that her favorite color was blue. And since I also loved the color blue, I figured it was destiny we were meant to become best friends. I bragged about slamming all my fingers in a hatchback earlier that summer but could still probably beat her in a thumb war or a hitchhiking contest. I also revealed my favorite color was blue and I too loved tuna fish.
The time flew by as Sara and I took our wooden tongue depressors and wound them into the dingy colored yarn, making what could only be described as a dirty ball of yarn and popsicle sticks.
All the counselors wore blue shirts reading, “Camp Fun N’ Stuff”. And for reasons never explained, they all wanted to be referred to as, “Cap’n.” I wasn’t sure if the theme of this place was nautical adventure or romp in the woods, but either way, they seemed to live and die by the abbreviation of words.
Our counselor, Cap’n Jerry was a slender man who wore tan shorts-shorts and neon orange wristbands. He had the quintessential child molester mustache and a very hands-off approach to our work. This was probably for the best, as by all accounts, he looked impeccably the part of a felon and/or roller rink junkie.
After we finished crafting, Jerry herded us to another part of the parking lot to play a group game. This began by another camp counselor and/or veterinary student handing each camper four saltine crackers. My group was then merged with another couple groups of kids who had come from other “stations” and/or mining locations and we were then told to stand in a square. It was unclear if they were going to shoot us or make us do calisthenics, but we did as we were told because we were all day camp prisoners to the fun n’ stuff.
Jerry informed us this was a game of wits and strategy. We were told to eat the four crackers in a minute’s time, and whoever could accomplish the task first would be deemed the winner. Apparently, the intellect bar was set extremely low so as not to hurt any child’s feelings. So cracker eating was considered high stakes.
Now, if you have never tried this stunt before, I highly recommend you putting down your tablet/phone/best-selling novel you are reading right now (hey, a girl has goals) and go try this out. You’re probably thinking, “oh yeah, no problem. Four little crackers in sixty seconds. Hell yes.”
Ok, that’s fine. I respect your confidence. I’ll wait.
Ok, you’re really going to want to try this.
Assuming you’ve now gone to the store, bought the crackers, driven home, accidentally run into the curb and then cursed me for forcing you to go get the crackers, gotten back to your happy place, attempted to do it, almost gagged, realized what you lack in salivary skills you make up for in emotional intelligence, developed a modicum of more respect for me than two paragraphs ago, and are now ready to move on with your life- well done sirs and madams.
For the rest of you, this is what happens when you eat four saltines in rapid succession: they absorb all the moisture in your mouth and you are quickly left with a dusty, abandoned butthole for a face.
See, don’t you wish you’d tried it?
Now, moving on…
After a minute’s time, all twenty five children are laughing, gagging, and resembling a toothless senior citizens dental convention. With not even the ability to whistle for help, all but one of the kids is out of contention as we’ve all been rendered mouthless. But lo and behold Lyle, wearing his full-frontal headgear was able to eat all four crackers in a minute’s time. Apparently you don’t go around all day drooling that much and not learn what to do with it.
As we all rehydrated our mouths with Capri Sun fruit punch, we cheered on Lyle as the counselors awarded him with the prize of the day, a red plastic sun visor with “Camp Fun N’ Stuff” splayed across the bill. Sadly it didn’t fit over his giant head apparatus but he graciously took it and tucked it into his green corduroy shorts while receiving pats on the back from fellow campers.
After that, it was “Popsicle Time.” (Also known to counselors as, Cap’n-Gets High-Time”.) Once again Jerry pointed us to another corner of the cement enclosure where he casually told us to go into the building on the property. More specifically, he wanted us to go into the sideways tilting, dilapidated structure that had padlocks on the doors and peeling paint on the walls.
“Don’t worry, the locks are just for show.” He told us. He then instructed us to go to the basement and each grab ourselves a popsicle. He promised to wait outside for us, which seemed in some ways both a good and bad idea.
Sara, Lyle, Poopy Pants (turns out her name was Vera and it was her first time away from home. She told us she only pooped when she was nervous) and I walked into the abandoned building that smelled like ammonia and old rubber tires.
“Does this seem weird to you?” Vera asked me.
“Only if we find a body in the freezer” I joked. Then I realized I probably shouldn’t make Vera any more nervous.
There in the corner of the virtually empty basement stood a giant white freezer. The rest of the basement was bare, except for a hammer resting upright in the corner.
“Look away from the hammer, Vera!” I quickly told her. I didn’t want to have to smash her head in for pooping on my popsicle.
The four of us nervously opened the freezer to find stacks of popsicles in all the best flavors; purple, red, yellow, orange, and the wildcard, green. They were the kind where two sticks were fused together to make a larger popsicle. Depending on your own personal popsicle eating technique, you could eat them as a whole, or split them into two. My strategy centered around eating the whole until it got manageable enough to break into two pieces. We each grabbed our respective popsicle (I went with purple, which I assumed to be grape), Sara went red (cherry), Lyle chose yellow (surprisingly banana, not lemon) and Vera, the unsung daredevil of the group, went green. Apparently, she was fond of the green Life Savers and thought she’d try her luck at the green popsicle. I’m still not sure what flavor green was supposed to be (Lime? Kiwi? Spinach?) but she was happy as a clam and so was her sphincter.
After we resurfaced from the basement, Jerry told us to head to the back of the building and hang out against the wall. (Even though he turned out to be harmless, with every instruction he gave us, it felt more and more like we were going to be sold into child slavery.) We made our way to the back of the run-down building, peeking into curtained windows where we could make out empty cages and giant plastic bins with labels like, “catch”, “clean”, and “send back”.
“What do you think the building is used for when we aren’t here?” Sara asked as we walked.
“My mom shays lish ish a dishcount camp, sho lathches why we are here,” Lyle informed us while slurping his popsicle with a lateral lisp.
“Ah, that explains why we only go to camp on Tuesday and Thursday,” I said. This camp could have easily been a meth lab on it’s off days. After having had our car stolen and also broken into, my family had come to learn, it was best to keep your head down on the mean, suburban streets of Reseda. And as long as the popsicles kept flowing and Sarah was nearby, I didn’t care what Jerry did on Monday, Wednesday or Friday.
When we got to the back of the building we were happily surprised to find a giant trampoline. Jerry met us and told us to line up against the wall and take turns jumping one-at-a-time.
There was no protective net and left to their own devices, kids will inevitably bounce off a trampoline like a piece of rogue bacon in a frying pan. And sure enough, three bounces in, I went from resilient bouncer to an underinflated basketball. My last bounce was landing squarely on a dirty grass mound next to the trampoline. But I was eight and made of rubber, so I quickly got up, dusted myself off, and carried my grape grin back in line next to Sarah. I’m guessing that would have been the perfect time to use the sponge my mom packed me, but in the heat of the moment, all I wanted to do was show off my trampoline skills to Sara.
While this camp lacked proper adult supervision and legal permits, it did have happy children. And in the end, that’s all that really mattered to me. As the Tuesdays and Thursdays wore on, I got to know Sara more, I learned how to break cement blocks (turns out Jerry was a contractor on his MWF) and at the end of the month, I not only had amassed an impressive collection of popsicle yarn monsters, but I also got to sing in the camp talent show. It was one of the first times I sang in public and with my campmates cheering me on, I sang a song aptly named, “I Can Do That”. This song also included a tap-dancing solo. Even though I didn’t know the first thing about tap dancing, being at that scrappy little camp had taught me how to make Rosé out of toilet water (metaphorically speaking). So with that mindset, I took bottle caps and glued them to the bottom of my sneakers. From there I did my best Gregory Hines impersonation singing and tapping in that dirty parking lot like it was Carnegie Hall.
The camp got shut down at the end of that summer for, according to the poster on the front gate, “undisclosed reasons”. But for me, it symbolized a turning point in my childhood. I learned that home is where you make it, be it side-by-side with cockroaches, meth labs, or with your childhood crush. I also got to perform in front of an audience. And nothing is a gateway drug to performing like a standing ovation. With my parents, sister, and two bald dogs cheering me on, I sang and tapped my way to pure joy. Turns out the, N’ Stuff, was the best deal of the summer.